The Birds Are Watching: Jenny Kendler’s Storm King Installation Sends a Message

Inspired by Audubon science, the new outdoor artwork features the eyes of 100 bird species threatened by climate change.

Amid the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley, set against the backdrop of Storm King mountain, sculptures and art installations of all shapes, sizes, and materials adorn grassy meadows and shady groves. This is the Storm King Art Center, a world-renowned outdoor museum in Orange County, New York, that encompasses roughly 500 acres and features modern and contemporary works. Here, undulating waves of turf mimicking giant ocean swells mix with towering formations of metal and other smaller works, such as Alyson Shotz's oft-photographed mirrored picket fence. Many of the works at Storm King are part of its permanent collection, but the curators also bring in new art every year as part of a special themed exhibit. For 2018, the exhibit is called Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, which features more than a dozen works. 

One of those artists is Jenny Kendler. Born in New York City, raised in Richmond, Virginia, and now a resident of Chicago, Kendler is an artist and activist who uses her work to raise awareness around issues she’s passionate about, including climate change. And so it was a perfect fit when Storm King asked Kendler, the first and current resident artist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, to make something for this year's special exhibit. 

Kendler's creation is an arresting installation called Birds Watching, which features a single eye from 100 different bird species. These aren't just any birds, though—each is a species threatened by climate change, according to Audubon's 2014 Birds & Climate Change report. In fact, Kendler credits the report for inspiring and informing her work. To find out more about her project and what she hopes people will take away from it, Audubon caught up with Kendler on the phone. The conversation below has been edited for both length and clarity. 

Audubon: How did this particular project come about? Did Storm King approach you for a new work, or was this something you were already working on?

Jenny Kendler: The Storm King team approached me. It was probably September of last year. At any one time, I'm simmering 18-20 ideas in the back of my studio, but I went to some of them for the show and nothing really seemed like a fit for the particular theme, venue, etc.  So this is a new idea specifically for this show. It certainly bears relationships to other works that I've done, especially this project I did called Bewilder, which is kind of like an immersive wallpapered environment that uses the eyes of butterflies and moths.

A: Were you already pretty familiar with the layout of Storm King?

JK: I definitely knew what Storm King was. To people working in contemporary art, sculptors, and especially people interested in working outdoors, this is like the premier sculpture park in the United States. So I was definitely familiar with them and extremely honored and amazed to be part of an exhibition there and even more thrilled that they—as this massive institution with all this presence and reach—are choosing to focus an entire year's worth of programming on climate change.

A: You give credit to Audubon’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change report for inspiring this piece. Were you already familiar with the report before you came up with this idea?

JK: Thinking back, I had discovered the report beforehand, so I already knew about it. I really can't give Audubon and the scientists who came up with this report enough credit. I think it's incredibly well done; it's a really enlightened move to help the public understand exactly how our actions are impacting other species. You see in my work that oftentimes what I'm trying to do is speak for communities that have no voice. I just particularly am in love with birds. I've always been taken by them. I want people to think about birds as more than a decorative element in the landscape, but to think of them as actual beings with these incredible, unique lives, and to consider the way that we threaten their ability to exist as species with climate change.

A: Why did you choose to just focus on the eyes?

JK: I think, for me, one of the most electrifying experiences that can happen in the natural world is to be fixed by the gaze of another creature. Our vision has become, unfortunately, this kind of one-way consumption—that's what we're taught by screens and by advertisements. I think that in past times human beings always have been engaged with vision the same way that they were engaged with touch: You touch and you are touched at the same time. I think that's the way that vision can engage us more deeply with the natural world. And to me the most potent example of that is when we look inside another creature, a non-human. It's rare that that happens, but it's the most electrifying, extraordinary experience to try and walk that gap between two different consciousness in this moment where you know you're being seen but you don't know much beyond that for certain. That was the impetus for this project, thinking about that with birds especially. Also, there are many different types of gazes. In that moment, it might be a gaze of admiration, of fear, of love, but I think in this particular case, I’m interested in the gaze that might border on the accusatory, so that the birds are looking at us and asking us, what are you doing and is this okay?

A: Knowing that, did you also choose the eyes according to whether they had that specific gaze?

JK: I didn't have one rubric in the way that I chose them. I chose some of them because they're extremely beautiful. I chose some of these birds because I love these birds, so there are bird species that I've had ongoing relationships with and watched, and they have watched me. For example, the raven is not a bird that has a particularly extraordinary-looking eye, but they're such phenomenally intelligent birds that are so fun to watch, and they definitely know when you're around and they're watching you. 

A:  What materials did you use to make the eyes?

JK: The eyes themselves are photo prints, so they're vector-based illustrations. They're created based on photographs and then the illustrations are printed on a highly reflective substrate—like what you would find on a stop sign for example—so that they have this luminous reflective quality like birds actually do. For example, if you were to go on a night hike and you catch an owl in the beam of your headlamp, their eyes glow back brilliantly. And so I wanted to replicate that experience. They're mounted on aluminum, and that's on a welded steel frame. And so in this particular case, I went a little bit outside of my comfort zone in terms of using materials that are not strictly biodegradable.

A: How long did it take you to complete the whole project?

JK: It took eight months. 

A: What will happen to it when the Storm King exhibition is done?

JK: Because of wanting to be sure that the piece, like my other work, had a light footprint on the earth, I have a plan for it, which is that it will be at Storm King through the end of the exhibition, and then it's coming to Chicago to the 606, which is an elevated trail sort of like the High Line. It will be there for potentially 18 months or something like that. And then I actually want to auction the work off one by one, and donate those proceeds to conservation. So I think in all fairness, some of the money should certainly go back to Audubon. (laughing) I really want them to have a full lifespan; I’m not interested in them sitting in my studio accumulating dust or not being useful. I guess they also have the possibility of being recycled. 

A: The description of the piece says it is site-specific. Did you get to be involved with the siting process? 

JK: I came out as the piece was being designed but wasn't physical at all, in January, and had the most beautiful walk through the snow with the curators of the project, Nora Lawrence and David Collens, who are also just really commendable and generous people. We walked quite a bit of the property and looked for the appropriate site for this. What I didn’t know before seeing the property was that I actually ideally wanted this to be up against a hill, so that you sort of had this natural backing to it. It seems somewhat unusual for an outdoor sculpture in that's really one-sided. Because it's about this sort of perspectival gaze, I wanted there to be this place from which you engage in the front, not in the round. I loved this particular site, and when you're standing there, you can actually see the whole sweep of Storm King mountain and all the rolling hills rolling back into the Hudson Valley. So it really is a nice place for an outdoor work.

A: Is there a sign or diagram so that people can identify which eyes go with which birds, or did you decide to leave it a mystery? 

JK: We're working on it. It's challenging even for people who are really passionate about birds and know these individual species well. Both of those last two things are true about me, and I've also looked at these so many times, and I don't have them memorized by far. It's challenging to identify bird species by eye only. 

A: I noticed you have done some other bird-centric work. You clearly have a connection with birds. Do you consider yourself a birder, or do you just love and appreciate them?

JK: Like many people, I have a complicated relationship with the term birder. I’m not the kind of person who has a life list. I own several pairs of high-quality binoculars. When I travel, I oftentimes spend a lot of time looking at birds. I spent a lot of time looking at birds here in Chicago. I put out suet for woodpeckers in the fall. I’m paying attention to birds all the time. I think I have my own way of engaging with birdwatching that maybe doesn't dovetail—to use a great verb—with the way that contemporary birdwatching culture operates. For me, I'm sometimes put off by the competitiveness, but one of the most thrilling moments of my life was seeing the Emerald Toucanet in Tikal in Guatemala. So I definitely flirt with the category, but I wouldn't say I'm a wholesale birder with a capital "B."

A:  There is definitely an assocation with competiveness for many. At Audubon, I think we’re trying to widen the definition of birding to be more accessible. You can appreciate birds in whatever way you want to appreciate them, whether that’s keeping a life list or whether it's not. But there are also the real diehard birders, who find out about a rare bird and jump in their car, and there is that whole aspect.

JK: I think that’s important work to redefine what bird lover means. Birder does have a very specific connotation; it’s a very particular culture that tends to be dominated by mostly older white men. So, if we want to make a form of cultural engagement that's open to more people, it really is worth looking again at this idea and seeing if we can contextualize it or free some of these concepts and activities from what otherwise seems like a more rigid or narrow idea of how one can participate. But I’ve definitely gotten in my car and gone places to see birds before. (laughing) I went to go see the Sandhill Cranes last winter.

A: This isn’t your first climate change project, and it's clear that you think of yourself as an artist and an activist. How important are those two identities to you? Do you consider them inextricably linked?

JK: I think for me they are inextricably linked. I wouldn't say that's necessarily the de facto perspective of the contemporary art world—in fact, I think it's something that for a while became exceedingly rare. By the 80s, the Reagan era, the art world became very commercial and almost became co-opted by late-stage capitalism. As I was coming through school, that reality was hitting me. I was one of those kids who always wanted to be an artist from the day I knew what the word was, and then to realize what that looks like in the modern era—that it was really like high-end consumerism—was incredibly disheartening to me.

I thought: There still has to be a way to be an artist that commented on the world and was part of helping to make the world a better place. I'm very privileged to have had a long history of being exposed to environmentalism and not knowing any other way to do things. My work is a reaction to recognizing that the broader late-capitalist fold is really out of sync with what I saw as the way to be in the world. And so that is part of my engagement with this idea of trying to tie art and activism together.  

I want to be really clear that the type of activism I do is very specific. Sometimes I am also doing more traditional direct acts and things, but I don't want to erase the identity of people who are doing direct action. I have members of my family who have been really involved in that type of work, and I think that's extraordinarily important, and making art about something is not the same. It's not the same level of personal risk, and so I don't want to co-opt that term, but I think that we need to work on all fronts right now. Our planet and our biosphere are at terrible risk, and if you don't have as many people mobilized in as many different disciplines as possible trying to save pieces of this world and carry it forward into the possible future, we're missing out. I think that art can play an important role in that. 


Birds Watching is on view at Storm King Art Center as part of Indicators: Artists on Climate Change through November 11th. You can join Jenny Kendler alongside Audubon artist George Boorujy, musician John Luther Adams and conservationist J. Drew Lanham for 'Day of the Bird'—a special Storm King program illuminating our deep connections to the climate-threatened avian world through live bird drawing, discussion, music and other family-friendly events—on August 12th.