Visual Arts Alumnus David Brooks ’09 (left) and Mentor Mark Dion (right) at The Great Bird Blind Debate © Ivy Linn

Visual Arts Mentor Mark Dion and Alumnus David Brooks ’09 in ‘The Great Bird Blind Debate’

BY Angeline Dimambro, December 2, 2020

Planting Fields Foundation recently hosted its first ever “slide slam” between Visual Arts Mentor Mark Dion and Alumnus David Brooks ’09 as part of their The Great Bird Blind Debate Exhibition. 


Dion’s work examines the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge, and the natural world. Dion also frequently collaborates with museums of natural history, aquariums, zoos and other institutions mandated to produce public knowledge on the topic of nature. Dion has been commissioned by institutions such as the Seattle Art Museum and the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco.


Brooks is an award-winning artist whose work considers the relationship between the individual and the built and natural environment. His work investigates how cultural concerns cannot be divorced from the natural world, while also questioning the terms under which nature is perceived and utilized. Brooks has had major exhibitions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, MoMA PS1 in New York City, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York, among many others.


The Great Bird Blind Debate “ushers in the Foundation’s new Catalyst program created to bring newly commissioned work by living artists to the site with the goal of continuing the legacy of arts patronage embraced by the Coes.” Both Dion’s "The Posh Blind" and Brooks’ "Budding Bird Blind" are located within the Carl F. Wedell Bird Sanctuary. In addition to the artists’ installations, visitors can also view the additional project models and materials on display inside Coe Hall. 


It was an evening of “dueling ideas and dialogue,” featuring a collaborative presentation from both artists as they went toe-to-toe “defending points of view on ‘birding’ as an activity and ‘birders’ as a distinct community.” The idea of the “slide slam” came from the artists themselves: “We wanted to take this opportunity to do something different than the typical artist talk,” Brooks said. “since both Mark and I utilize scientific expeditions and the scientific method for our inquiry into our own work, this evening we wanted to pull from our own knowledge and experiences. We’re going to embark upon this centuries-old debate about which is truly superior: birds or the bird observer?” 


The artists’ presentation blended scientific facts, their personal artistic projects, and plenty of humor. As Brooks noted, there are about 10,500 species of birds worldwide—1,107 in the US alone. Point birds. In rebuttal, Dion pointed out that while there is only one species of human, there are about 7.8 billion people in the world. Point bird observer. The jovial debate was also educational, the artists sharing facts such as how birding has become the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the US, an estimated 61.3 million Americans identifying as “birders.”


Brooks and Dion also shared a bit about their past projects that have intersected with the world of birds. In one project, Brooks made castes of many wild animals—ranging from elephants to lions—and placed them inside the bird sanctuaries at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. “Over time, [the sculptures] acquired their painterly patina of guano...the birds would help complete the piece by leaving these real indexical traces of real life lived on top of these projection, fantastical notions of wildlife.” After a few months, Brooks moved the sculpture menagerie to the Miami Art Museum in south Florida for exhibition in a piece entitled “Still Life with Stampede and Guano.” “I often don’t represent the birds themselves or the image of the bird. It is the traces that the birds leave behind.”


In his own work, Dion created what he calls a “The Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit.” While in Folkestone, England, Dion was struck by just how much people in the seaside city disliked gulls. “The Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit (MGAU) travelled throughout the city of Folkestone, and my gull enthusiast, with almost evangelical passion, tried to convince people that gulls are wonderful—that they are great things worthy of our esteem.” Not only did the MGAU give Dion an opportunity to educate people about gulls, but he and his collaborators also published a field guide, “which helps people to understand what gull behavior and vocalization is.”


Brooks’ and Dions’ individual approaches to their artwork are distilled in the two bird blinds they created for the The Great Bird Blind Debate. While Dion’s “The Posh Blind” sports camouflage that incorporates the silhouettes of birds that have been driven to extinction, Brooks’ “Budding Bird Blind” is modeled after the oldest surviving structures on the Planting Fields Foundation grounds and is open to the elements, a carefully curated selection of trees driving skyward through openings in the roof. The debate is still on, and visitors can read further about the exhibition here.


Located in Oyster Bay, New York, the Planting Fields Foundation “strives to preserve and make relevant to all audiences the heritage of Planting Fields, an early 20th century 409-acre estate, designed as an integrated composition of the built and natural world.”


The foundation also has a limited-edition exhibition book available for purchase here.