Exhibition: Elmgreen and Dragset 'Untitled' at Tate Modern, Guardian, Telegraph, BBC, Sky News, Independent

Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, BBC News, Sky News 12 May 2004

13/05/2004 :: A "dying" sparrow has become the first of a series of installations in a new space at London's Tate Modern.
Created by Danish and Norwegian duo Michael-Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the stunned sparrow appears to be trapped inside the museum window.

In fact, the mechanical creature is the work of the animatronics team behind the critically-acclaimed BBC show Walking With Dinosaurs.

The artists said the bird's incidental appearance was part of their message.

"We found out that sparrows are called 'Cockney sparrows' in Britain and are a working class symbol," said Mr Dragset.

"We wanted to show that working class culture and working class pride is dying out, even though there are still as many poor people."

Common theme

The installations, in the ground floor space that used to house the Tate Modern shop, will rotate every eight weeks.

All the artists are working with the theme The Public World of The Private Space, examining how "the human condition is altered by the public or private environment".

"When the artists came to us, it seemed quite perverse that for this inaugural project the whole space would be completely empty apart from this tiny bird in the window," said Tate Modern curator Susan May.

"People walking past outside can see this drama unfurling, or they might miss it. It really depends on how preoccupied they are."

BBC News

Artists hope to ruffle feathers with model of dying sparrow
By Jonathan Brown
12 May 2004

The once ubiquitous sparrow has suffered such a decline that one of the few guaranteed sightings in London this summer - on a plinth at an art gallery - is of the bird in its death throes.

The animatronic model has been created by a pair of Scandinavian conceptual artists for an exhibition at a new display space at Tate Modern. Michael Elmgreen from Denmark and Ingar Dragset from Norway say that among their main purposes is to draw attention to the plight of the bird whose numbers have fallen by half in recent years.

It is not the first time they have used animatronics to explore their themes. The duo were celebrated at last year's Venice Biennale for their animated chimp Lala which struggled to spell out the word "utopia" using a lettered dice. They claim the ailing fortunes of the bird - captured between sheets of glass, marooned upside down, its heart visibly pounding inside its tiny chest - mirrors the demise of working-class identity in Britain.

The artists have given the piece three different titles to explore what they say are its multiple themes. One - Somewhere in the World It's 4 o'Clock - is an apparent reference to public powerlessness over world events. The second - Just a Single Wrong Move - examines how one mistake can cost a person dear, and the third - Blocking the View - is ironic.

Susan May, the curator of the exhibition, said yesterday: "This little sparrow is locked, twitching in its death throes, but it is of course a sculpted piece of animatronics. It is a heart-rending little creature which is endlessly dying ... the artists are very subversive, and they love to play with conventions."

The work forms part of a new series, Untitled: The Public World of the Private Space, marking the fourth anniversary of the opening of the Tate Modern and will rotate recent works by international artists every eight weeks. They will be displayed in a new space designed by architects Herzog and De Meuron on the north entrance of the Bankside building overlooking the Millennium Bridge.

The "trapped" sparrow will be visible to passers-by day and night. The exhibition by Elmgreen and Dragset opens today and runs until 4 July. Admission is free.

Jonathan Brown of the Independent

Dying sparrow ruffles feathers in name of art

The Tate Modern unveiled its latest conceptual joke yesterday - a sparrow in its death throes.

The little grey and brown male bird is trapped between the panes of a double-glazed window. Lying on the ground on its back, it gasps for breath, it's chest heaving desperately, beak twitching, it's wings convulsing and feet stiff in the air.

The 'Dying Sparrow' was given an opening night party
"We think that people will be taken aback, wonder what it's doing in there and say 'Gosh' how did it get in?" said Susan May, the curator.

"We think that it will particularly appeal to children," she added.

But the sparrow is a joke - sort of. It is an exhibit made of latex. Only the feathers are real.

A wire beneath its body runs to a hidden computer which regulates the dance of death.

Nonetheless, the gallery is preparing itself for worried telephone calls from passers-by.

"We have warned the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and our security staff that people are likely to ring up to say that there is a bird dying in our window. They have been instructed to say that it's OK, it's art," said Miss May.

Tate Modern has taken the joke to unusual lengths. The bird was given an opening night party last night, expected to be attended by "several hundred" talking heads from London's smart art world knocking back cheap first-night chardonnay.

Though barely four inches long, the bird is the only exhibit in a new gallery at Tate Modern measuring 25 metres by seven metres, big enough for a dozen Tracey Emin beds and as many Rembrandts on the walls.

This, again, is a tease, but Miss May insists that it will "make people think about space".

Future exhibitions in the new gallery, opened to show the work of lesser known artists, will touch on such mind-bending subjects as "the gender of space" and "social space".

It took two artists to design the sparrow - Michael Elmgreen, a Dane, and Ingar Dragset, a Norwegian.

At the Venice art biennale last year, the pair showed a (real) chimpanzee, Lala, using large dice to spell U-T-O-P-I-A, except that she failed. The pair ruled out using a stuffed sparrow, or more perilously, a succession of half-dead sparrows, for fear of upsetting animal rights protesters.

"The sparrow's death is a small tragedy. We did not want to turn it into a big scandal," Elmgreen said.

The artists sub-contracted the job of making the animatronics sparrow (cost: £12,000) to Crawley Creatures, the Sussex firm that won a Bafta award for special effects for the television series Walking with Dinosaurs.

The Tate Modern hopes that watching the birdie die will prove as compelling to visitors as Olafur Eliasson's giant sun, recently removed from the gallery's turbine hall, which attracted thousands of hippy sun-worshippers.

Is the sparrow art or a gimmick? "Oh, it is art, absolutely," said Miss May.

Why? "Because it makes us look at something afresh. It can be read on many different levels."

Here the story of the bird becomes confusing. The artists have suggested so many meanings for the piece that it is really an everyman sparrow.

The choices are: the sparrow is Cockney Sparrow and represents the death of the London working classes; it symbolises, more simply, the decline of sparrows in the capital; death is unusual in a gallery and the sparrow makes us dwell on the unexpected; or, at a time when we are overloaded with grim images from Iraq, the true horror of death can only be conveyed by the trapped sparrow.

Dragset said: "We found out that sparrows are called 'Cockney sparrows' in Britain and are a working class symbol.

"Cockney sparrows were once everywhere in towns and cities but now they are in serious decline.

"We wanted to show that working class culture and working class pride is dying out, even though there are still as many poor people."

The dying sparrow can be viewed from inside or outside the gallery.

It stands in the only ground-floor window in Tate Modern's vast brick edifice and it may be most striking at night when the window is lit.

Nigel Reynolds of the Telegraph

Watch the birdie

"Did you see it from outside?" the Tate Modern press officer wants to know. Well, I heard the hucksters playing birdie whistles under the bridge, and for a moment mistook it for the warbling of a sparrow. If sparrows warble.
Inside the big white room that used to be a bookshop, I still can't see anything. Only when the curator, Susan May, presses me towards a window whose double panes contain a dead sparrow do I encounter the art of Elmgreen and Dragset.

A wing twitches and the little beak gasps open. In sparrow this means: "I'm not quite dead." From the invisible to the unspeakable - this work of art may be small but its cruelty is perfectly formed. Outside, people catch sight of the tiny bird feebly kicking its spindly legs and stare in disbelief. Their reactions vary enormously. Two Japanese men are laughing. Next to them a woman seems genuinely distressed. I watch their faces from inside the gallery, through what might - in its secure double glazing and sealed white minimalism - be mistaken for the window of a new Prada store.

While people walking along the Thames wonder whether to call the RSPCA, the artists - hulking, grinning characters both - cheerfully explain that, in fact, this is not a real sparrow at all. The feathers are real, but the bird inside is an entirely animatronic creation, assembled by the effects people who worked on the BBC1 programme Walking with Dinosaurs.

"We thought it shouldn't be a real sparrow because people in Britain care a lot about animal rights." So, presumably, if Denmark's Michael Elmgreen and Norway's Ingar Dragset had done this in Berlin, where they live, they'd be drugging a bird in the Tiergarten every day and letting it slowly suffocate inside a glass chamber.

But this is a work of art for London where, the artists discovered while planning the installation, there has been a huge decline in the number of sparrows since 1994. In the 18th century, Joseph Wright of Derby portrayed a scientific lecturer slowly depriving a white cockatoo of oxygen in his Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. This is an experiment on people - how we respond to the spectacle of a small, helpless, feathery creature apparently fluttering its last. Early results suggest it upsets and confuses Londoners a great deal.

Elmgreen said: "I think it will look good when people pass by after having a pint.

"I think that they will relate to the little creature in an emotional way."

Jonathan Jones of The Guardian

A dying sparrow is the latest bird-brained work of art to go on show at London's Tate Modern gallery.

The bird, which is lying on its back trapped between two double-glazed windows at the gallery, gasps for breath and convulses as it appears to die.

The exhibit is actually an animatronic sparrow which has been built using real feathers, and was created by Danish and Norwegian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset.

They said the bird was supposed to represent the dying breed of the British working classes.

Dragset said: "We found out sparrows are called 'Cockney sparrows' in Britain and are a working class symbol. Cockney sparrows were once everywhere in towns and cities but are now in serious decline."

The bird is the only exhibit in a huge space at the Tate Modern.

Curator Susan May dismissed claims that the sparrow was just a gimmick.

"It is absolutely art," she said. "It makes us look at something afresh. It can be read on many different levels."

Sky News

Send this article to a friend
Print version