Bronze, stainless steel
Commissioned by Oxford Brookes University
Location: Central Courtyard, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK
The desire to fly and the fascination with feathered beings is a universal human trait. It reaches across cultures and time to our most enduring mythologies and pursuits, finding its expression in the Icarus myth, in Abas ibn Firnas’s flying machines in 9th century Spain and Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance “ornithopter,” among so many others.
Although we may not have achieved sustained physical flight until relatively recently in human history, we have throughout this time had recourse to metaphorical flight: that of the mind through imagination and learning, activities which we engage in both privately or collectively, in institutions such as schools and universities.
These “flights of the mind” are central to all creative work and thinking, and so they hold a special fascination for me as an artist.
A key text for me is the 12th-century Sufi allegory, The Conference of the Birds, in which the birds of the world come together to choose a king. Each of the birds represents a particular human trait: their leader the hoopoe, for example, symbolises wisdom; the peacock is the greedy one, the partridge, the miser. Together, they set out on a quest which takes them through seven valleys, symbolising seven phases of life.
Much of our early years are marked by our transition through phases in which institutions play a central part. Like birds, we hatch in one place and move through a succession of “nests,” which we leave behind once their purpose has been fulfilled. There is home, a progression of schools, culminating for many of us at university.
For Oxford Brookes, I wanted to make a visual evocation of the process of mental flight, and the university’s place as one of those precious perches that life affords us: a temporary “home” where the minds of many come together to express themselves, and to find new modes of expression.
I talked to students and staff at the university to find out what has brought them there, what made them choose their subjects, what they hoped to gain from and contribute to in their time here, and where they hoped to fly on to.
From this process, I conducted an intuitive audit of characters and traits, evolving a series of composites and developing a subjective taxonomy of university types. Out of these, I selected five to be embodied as bird-like creatures, an assembly of species providing a unique snapshot of Oxford Brookes in 2017.
They sit alongside one another in the Central Courtyard on two perches, reminiscent of classic graduation portraits; those line-ups of unfamiliar faces we periodically scan to find ourselves or our friends in. The work is partly an evocation, and partly an invitation to viewers to stop and look and see who they can recognise and pick out.