AVES MEI by Mauro Zanchi (English)


To auspicate (1)

Can there be a form of communication in ‘code’ (sounds, noises, or a “language without words”) for conveying knowledge? The intentions of the mind, like primordial words or the beginnings of a language, are often profoundly contradictory. And in this “often”, perhaps something more interesting than even an entire language or a medium or a coded system is hidden, or at least it is an attempt to evoke more than a single interpretation (and more levels) to an attentive mind. It is clearly not a new way, because almost all the esoteric systems (despite being so proud of their eloquent silence, they have instead continuously used words to torment themselves) have tried to transmit “something” with ornithophonic languages. The language of birds (2) is, like argot (3) (intended also as viaticum for nourishing the attentive minds of clever people), a way of “seeing” meanings, where “seeing”, though implying figures or images, is intended in a broader sense, referring to senses beyond sight, or to intuitive supersensory perceptions. There are two main methods of teaching the mysteries converging in argot, used as a means of comprehending knowledge and Truth: an “epoptic” one, (esoteric, based on symbols and images) and one “mystes” (closed, referring to words, of those who have been introduced to the mysteries).

The works comprising “Aves Mei” are an attempt to understand through the observation of birds in captivity, perhaps imagining their potential flights. The photographs express an inaccessible silence. Only some cracks on the backdrops, almost hyperrealistic  trompe-l’oeils, reveal an expectation of revelation. The subjects, which should lead to prophecies of future events, appear to be crystallized, with the sense of bewilderment of birds stuffed with straw, struck dumb like fish in a public aquarium. During her stay in New York, Giorgia Valli visited the Bronx Zoo in an attempt to create a contrast between her moods, struggling between repulsion and fascination for the animals’ place of imprisonment. The shots are taken in a place that confuses the senses, enshrouded by a silent and almost numbing haze, where birdsong rings out muffled behind the glass. The photographs document something, a mood falling inside the line of veracity in the illusory space that society proposes. The immobility of the subjects in the shots is eloquent. In these suspended spaces and moments where a strong contrast is felt, the artist descends into a romantic-decadent line of thought, led to embalm the attempts to seduce and the melancholy of these animals.

Yet all the while, the artist tries to transcend any neo-decadent self-satisfaction. A phrase of Calvino comes to mind: “The hell of living people is not something to come; if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell we live in every day, which we form staying together. There are two ways not to suffer from it. The first comes easy to many: to accept hell and become part of it to the point you do not see it anymore. The second is risky and requires continuous attention and learning: to look for and recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, and to make it last and give it space.”

“Aves Mei” attempts to give space in the midst of inner imprisonment and existential unease, to a lyrical short circuit, trying to show what is not hell in the midst of hell.

1. “Auspice,” is derived from the Latin “Auspicium” (from Avispicium), and refers to the foretelling of things to come through the observation of birds

2.  In Medieval France “la langue des oiseaux” is a secret language of troubadours, based on wordplay and symbolism, inspired by the double entendre caused by homophony. For natural philosophers and wizards of the Renaissance, the language of birds is considered the key for attaining perfect knowledge, often called the “green language”. In Sufism it is a mystical angelic language. In the Talmud, Solomon becomes wise by a divine gift after being initiated into the comprehension of the language of birds.

3. According to Fulcanelli, argot is based on the laws of homophony which would be applied “in compliance with the phonetic language that regulates the phonetic cabala in all the languages and without taking orthography into account”, and is intended as “the particular language of all those individuals who are interested in exchanging their opinions without being understood by others around them.”


The decadentism of entertainment, or rather the culture of leisure in the zoo

“The World of Birds” section, an enormous indoor exhibition in which birds were free to fly, opened in the Bronx Zoo in 1972.

In those same years, Annette Messager worked on Le Repos des Pensionnaire (4), a work in which dozens of “taxidermied” sparrows wore tiny knitted garments and then were carefully mounted in window displays similar to those in natural history museums. Here, the contrast between the childlike playfulness and the sober, scientific meticulousness with which the birds were displayed in museum exhibits stood out clearly. Surrealistic elements triggered a sense of the absurd, a dark and terrible sweetness, sewn together with undercurrents of a pungent critical sense.

In 1976, Hiroshi Sugimoto shot Dioramas, photographs presented in natural history museums which portrayed stuffed animals in artificial habitats.

In 2013, Giorgia Valli photographed in New York a sort of tableau vivant with birds in captivity, which become metaphors of the absence from a habitat that is felt as natural and one’s own. The register is not scientific, but intimist and refers to the theme of not feeling at home anywhere. In this displacement, the mood is in search of relations of perception, in both a philosophical nature as well as a literary framework. The first section of The Flowers of Evil,a collection of poems by Charles Baudelaire, bears the title “Spleen et Idéal” (Ennui and Ideal), in which the poem “Albatros” is found. The author draws a comparison between the life condition of the albatross, a seabird, and that of the poet. The poet, like a bird, is able to soar above others with the mind and the imagination, but it is a solitary and defenseless being in its own habitat. These qualities make the poet awkward in the banality of a bourgeois existence.

The theme of the “Aves Mei” photographs would seem to evoke the contrast between the artist and society. The latter behaves with the artist as the sailors did with the albatross: they captured the seabird, the king of the skies, the winged voyager, only to entertain themselves by harassing and teasing it. In reality, these are instinctive photographs, rising from a fascination, not fully understood in the very moment in which it was perceived, a fascination of contrasts which provoked sensations and controversial thoughts. The birds were perceived as objective correlations of a restless spirit, in anticipation of flight, imprisoned within an atmosphere taken perfectly from Baudelaire’s poetry.

We have been conducted inside an enormous aviary. The birds inserted in an artificial habitat, which shows signs of structural decadence, are that which Valli recognizes as home. Contemporaneously, however, the photographs tell us that the artist feels foreign and exiled in the Anglo-Saxon New York society in which she lives, made to live in a world in which she does not belong, just as the birds that originated on other continents, here are forced to fly in a vacuum. When flight is impeded, the fictitious habitat of these birds becomes not only their home but the world. It creates an identification of otherness between the person, the ego, and the world. The decadent ego, after the enthusiasm for romantic values dissipates, retires from public life and shut up in an ivory space of exile, contemplates the future. In the end, what the artist feels is a sort of separation from the middle class in which she no longer identifies herself: she finds herself alone, lost, and observes in sort of self-pitying apathy the remote and ancestral stimuli which become emotion. No longer is there flight towards the Infinite. There is great suffering. And yet the baroque nuances imprisoned in cold colors amidst sharp marks, the estranged atmosphere, small cracks on the backdrop betraying the idyll: we are at the Zoo, inside the decadentism of entertainment, in the culture of leisure. And the fog of an Atlantic winter is close at hand solemnly marching to bring its chill upon the wings of captive birds.

 4. The macabre title suggests that the birds are temporary “lodgers” in the museum. It brings to mind the kind of explanation given to a terrified child when accompanied to a museum of natural history to show them the stuffed animals.

Mauro Zanchi


Aristophanes, The Birds

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlement of Foules

H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic

Religions, Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York 1988.

Rene Guenon, The Language of the Birds, in “The Treasure”, 1998.