John Kissane looks at New Orleans-based artist Pippin Frisbie-Calder’s installation at ArtPrize, the monumental festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The story goes that, in 1907, Theodore Roosevelt spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker and exclaimed, “Lord God!” The name stuck: The elusive bird, notable for its beautiful flight and the scarlet shock of its males’ feathers, became known as the “Lord God bird.” Sightings went from rare to rarer. It’s mostly believed today that the bird is extinct, despite claims of encounters in 2004 in Arkansas. (The state’s website, which devotes a page to the bird, maintains its existence, perhaps as a tourist lure).
In June of this year, New Orleans-based artist Pippin Frisbie-Calder entered ArtPrize’s New Orleans Pitch Night contest. She and four other local artists were given five minutes to pitch their prospective entries. ArtPrize, an annual arts festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is notable for its size. This year, over 500,000 attendees are expected to visit the more than 1300 entries on display over 19 days. In addition to its size, ArtPrize is known for its monetary prizes, with $500,000 in awards given out, divided among entries chosen by a jury of arts professionals and entries chosen by the general public. Having won Pitch Night, Frisbie-Calder was granted $5000, a guaranteed spot in an exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, and a chance at the additional prize monies.
Frisbie-Calder’s Canceled Edition, 2017, features nearly 800 hand-painted woodcut prints of ivory-billed woodpeckers. They are carefully painted, and the artist has clearly invested a substantial amount of time. Yellow-brown discoloration along some edges, maybe a result of the woodcutting process, gives the birds an air of having come through fire. Simple black magnets are glued to the back, by which the birds are held to the wall. Dangling tags provide fictional accounts of the birds; one, in old-fashioned script, states, “Shot 1863.” And so many were shot, hunted for their feathers.
Frisbie-Calder is commenting on our desire, as humans, to possess nature. A sign encourages viewers to take a bird home: a souvenir that results in a blank space on the wall. As viewers take more birds, more blank space opens. The viewer, seeing those blank patches, imagines others, and eventually, there will be nothing but blankness—a simulated extinction. The choice of bird is perfect. The ivory-billed woodpecker was a symbol of the early conservation movement, and, like Frisbie-Calder, it made Louisiana its home, although not exclusively. The bird could be found across the American South. As an artwork, Canceled Edition exists on two planes: in the gallery and at home. At UICA, it’s afforded a prominent space on the building’s lower level. At home, individual birds will likely end up on refrigerator doors. That dual nature works well; at home, I see my own bird every day and am reminded of the piece.
Any large arts festival is a double-edged sword: At ArtPrize, hundreds of thousands of attendees may see the piece, but many will only give it ten seconds before breezing past. But some, lingering, will take the time to fill out a brief survey from Frisbie-Calder. One question asks takers what in their own lives is disappearing, elevating the piece beyond an elegy for the ivory-billed woodpecker or agitprop for the environmental movement to touch more personal concerns.
I saw the piece in person on opening weekend. A dozen people stood around, some admiring the intricacy of the birds, others reading the description, and others debating whether to make the donation. (A suggested donation of $3 supports Frisbie-Calder and discourages too many people from taking the birds too quickly.) At the time, maybe a dozen birds had been taken. When I returned a couple of hours later, there were several more blank spaces. Canceled Edition elegantly illustrates a simple point: What’s gone is gone, Arkansas sightings notwithstanding.
While ArtPrize Nine closed on October 8, 2017, Pippin Frisbie-Calder’s Canceled Edition, 2017, remains on view through December 10, 2017, at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (2 Fulton Street West) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.