Words by Victoria Wynne-Jones
Photography by Samuel Hartnett
We made it!
Recently I read that the birds' dawn chorus can be roughly translated as them saying to each other: "We made it through the night, we are still alive!" Ever since reading that, I feel differently when hearing them first thing in the morning. Their song is in fact a paean to survival, one I can relate to. Upon waking, I too am happy and relieved that myself and my loved ones made it intact to live another day. The joy is infectious, the birds seem so celebratory, literally chirpy!
Song 1-5 is a series of lithographic prints made by Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist Areez Katki. Each is based on drawings the artist made whilst listening to field recordings of encounters with birds. The individual works are testament to idiosyncratic processes of transposition, ways of exploring sound via line, colour and form. Katki attempts to discern the visual compositions of what he hears through acts of drawing, then capture. With curiosity, he pays attention, layering up colours and various qualities of mark-making in order to explore the very texture of sound. Listening, he sifts through aural stimuli, narrowing his focus, observing how timbre creates responses across his nervous system, whether as it is experienced, or even in recollection. From here, Katki considers pitch, tone, tempo.
It feels as though each print could be notated with the Italian musical terms used in the writing and reading of music to indicate pace and tempo: ritardando, lentando, accelerando, affretando, allegretto, prestissimo, vivace (almost backwards, slowing down, getting faster, becoming hurried, a little bit joyful, very quick, lively!)
"Will you please read what's written above the score?" the lady asked.
"Moderato cantabile," said the child.1Marguerite Duras, "Modertato Cantabile" in Four Novels by Marguerite Duras. New York, Grove Press, 1965. 63.
Katki takes inspiration from the prior example of Olivier Messiaen, particularly the French composer's experimentations with transposition, or shifting musical structures into different keys and scales. Such a process can be seen in Katki's process of rendering various bird calls in visual representations. Messiaen is also an important model due to his practice of venturing into the countryside, making musical notations of avian sounds and incorporating these into compositions such as: Réveil des Oiseaux (1953) and Oiseaux Exotiques (1955-1956) for piano and orchestra as well as the piece for solo piano Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956-1958). Messiaen's working process was somewhat unusual for a composer, bearing more resemblance to that of landscape painters, heading outdoors, making observations of particularities of atmosphere, working en plein air in search of stirring configurations of light, precipitation, geological formations, flora and fauna.
When walking rather than driving from place to place, one is prey to vagaries of chance and unexpected encounters. The more time one spends out of doors, the greater the chances become of stumbling upon something unusual. Traversing Arch Hill, or making his way to the Grey Lynn markets, Katki experienced the calls of many different species. I read through his notes, a song thrush, the sound of a grey warbler jumping, an unidentified avian incident. Is it really possible he heard a kōkako in Western Springs park? Ears can be tricky... Katki reflects on his time spent as a member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), trips to the Mumbai coastline where he heard migratory birds and encountered those extinct or near-extinct. From his recordings Katki then listens, draws and notates (Messiaen too worked from recordings, in his case on library gramophones).
Songs 1-5 is a testament to the artist's interest in ornithology, particularly birds who migrate from place to place– Katki himself is an itinerant creature. Fittingly, there was an epistolary element to his process of making prints with John Pusateri of APS. When Katki temporarily re-located to Te Whanganui-a-Tara part-way through the process, Pusateri traced the outlines of drawings the artist had already made on the six stones using frosted drafting film. Each colour used in each print had its own layer of film. These were then mailed to Katki so that he could register his marks for each subsequent layer, planning and drawing with opaque markers and dipping needles. In Katki's absence colour flats or backgrounds were printed to match the artist's prompts: a yellow Post-It note, a Cecil Brunner rose, skeins of silk. Lithographic inks were matched to swatches as colour samples labelled: muddy olive, opaque yellow, crimson, espresso, rust, solid black, lime, international blue. Several months later, when the finished films had been posted back by Katki, they had in fact flown like birds through the air, twice.
Like the paper upon which staves are printed, fields of colour in pale mauve, light blue, mint green, soft canary yellow and musk pink provide back-grounds for Katki's visual recordings of soundscapes. Each print is made up of six to seven layers of coloured marks. A 'positive working' film process was used to print each drawn mark, in coloured ink, onto paper. Film by film, colour by colour. A great amount of trust was involved as each image was not seen outside of the mind's eye by either Katki or Pusateri, until printed. Layer by layer was built up until the final composition was revealed. Each print documents Katki's prior acts of translation, allowing "tempo/rhythms to define linear gestures: rises, falls, pauses, steps, leaps, starts stops." A variety of bird songs are translated into an individual's language, that of the artist.
Using ink and paper, varicoloured backgrounds and marks, individual prints delay extended moments of time. Each is testament to Katki's attention, deep listening, an acuity of observation that has been applied to acts of drawing. Songs 1-5 are exuberant and expressive. Marks, forms, lines and shapes scatter and disperse themselves in space. Each print is spangled with fragmentary snatches of time, moments, dashes, points. There are repetitive marks, sounds, calls? A sound pierces, then is drawn out, there are variations in thickness, weight and length. There are ludic intervals, small spaces in between colours, shapes and sound. Calligraphic songs without words, the prints are musical scores upon which has been drawn and written sonic portraits. More Italian musical terms come to mind: ballabile, burletta, cadenza, cantata, caprice, coda, concertino, fioritura, intermezzo (dance-able, a little joke, falling, sung, caprice, tail, little concert, flowery, interval).
There are many art historical precedents to Katki's series of prints, however two are more prominent in my opinion. One is the drawings and pedagogical sketchbooks of Paul Klee from the 1920s, his attention to fundamentals, to lines active, passive, medial, their capacity to move hither and thither, their relationship to nature and their ability to become inter-dimensional.2Paul Klee, Pedagogical Skecthbook. London, Faber and Faber, 1925/1972. Another is the visual research of Len Lye, particularly his practice of automatic drawing in search of pre-conscious concepts and images that might "twang the chromosomes" and his conception of the old brain as a repository for information dating back to time immemorial where a myriad of forms, structures, processes and events could be found.3Len Lye: A Personal Mythology (Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery, 1980) 14-23. Although where Lye found inspiration in childhood memories, forms that were microscopic, sub-atomic, even cosmic, Katki's lies in the emitted cries and calls of birds.
God creates the birds, whilst thinking of Adam
As Fanny Howe points out, "Birds in almost all religions are the angels of angels."4Fanny Howe, The Needle's Eye: Passing Through Youth. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2016. It is not difficult to think about the birds one encounters on a daily basis. Seagulls flying ahead, sparrows perched on guttering, a native pigeon gazing down from a power-line. However additional examples and phenomena stretch further back in timespace, in an earlier exhibition Katki created work inspired by "The Conference of the Birds" an epic poem crafted by Farid ud-Din Attar in the twelfth century, for whom birds' song was the saying of the name of God. Indeed there is something about this point in time that is pertinent to Katki's Song 1-5. Around 1220 Saint Francis of Assisi, known for his communication with animals gave his sermon entitled "My Little Sisters the Birds." Certain instances of carved stone come to mind, two moments made manifest by thirteenth century sculptors at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres which was completed in 1260. Both are located in the outer left voussoir of the central bay of the north porch and they capture moments in a story about the creation of the world. In the first, God loves Adam into being, His head tilts forward, he looks down at the man before him, one hand softly touches the top of his head, as thought slowly closing his fontanelle. The other hand gently cradles his face, with fingers spread upon left cheek and thumb grasping. Adam smiles as he is blissfully brought into being. In the second moment, God creates the birds whilst thinking of Adam. Imagining the man standing just behind him, by His right shoulder (the Heraldic left) God conjures up multitudes of winged creatures. They teem beside him higgledy-piggledy, one on top another, beaks, eyes, claws, feathers. A series of craning necks stretch forth in wave-like forms, bursting forth from stone, crowding outwards.
Almost eight centuries later, gazing upon Katki's prints, I can't help but think of these carvings, the idea that the birds were created from a homoerotic impulse, created from love to create joy and delight. For Song 1-5 Katki, a Son of Adam pays homage to the unique winged creatures with the capacity for song, these feathered engines exhaling little cacophonies and creating momentary interruptions in the aural fabric of daily life.