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The schedule was just perfect. It was, Yulia Kovanova tells me, meant to be. In March, when the first Arctic terns crossed the island of Mull on their annual migration, her exhibition opened its doors at Mull’s An Tobar Arts Centre, which has its origins in some decoys she once created to draw terns to the Scottish coast to breed.
Despite talk of the virus and worries of a lockout, Kovanova says the opening went well. “I thought no one would come,” she says, “but they all came! There’s a wonderful island community on Mull.”
And then, two days later, as they did elsewhere in Scotland, the doors closed prematurely. The terns continued to migrate, to travel through cool winds, to move forward, untouched.
But the people, far below, were locked in by an equally invisible force swirling through remote villages and developments in urban housing, the only migration a period of regular movement and hasty trips to the shop.
Laughs at Kovanova. Now the terns have vanished, she says, and the show is open again. It no longer has the immediacy that she and An Tobar curator Mike Darling designed so carefully, but this evocative installation still reverberates, with a soundscape by Lars Koens.
Colony is an installation of three pieces, part of a larger body of work curated to fit into the airy gallery space of An Tobar. The work, started in 2015, was an offshoot of Kovanova, a Siberian artist who came to Scotland 16 years ago – a migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic not quite as long as that of Arctic terns, but impressive nonetheless – began after she was asked to work with scientists to create some visually realistic tern sculptures for the RSPB to use as decoys to attract terns to a healthy breeding grass.
As an artist, you get inspired by several different fields when I started studying and working with them…. I read that sometimes it doesn’t really matter if the decoy looks like the bird, because they react to colors and patterns, and so I started working along the way with colors and patterns and shapes, all in the right proportions, but not the way the real birds look.
Colony hangs in the gallery from the high rafters of the former schoolroom, which is now the creative arts space of An Tobar, circles of gray and white and red as wide as a tern with wings spread out, “flying” at various heights. “They’re fascinating birds,” he says.
“They have the longest migration of any bird or animal, and I was very interested in thinking about migration through this work, about how we migrate as humans, how birds migrate across all our human borders, about my own journey and the things associated with those migrations.”
The sound installation by Koens reacts to the work of Kovanova, playing with the five elements that make up each sculpture.
“They’re not an illustration, they’re a response,” she says.
The second work is Lifetime, “real size, from their birth to their death,” an installation of cast resin tern beaks, Kovanova describes.
“And what happens is that their beak changes with the seasons. So when it’s cold, the beak is black, and when mating season approaches, it becomes redder. It’s like putting on lipstick! Then after the breeding season, it turns black again.”
Terns, Kovanova notes, live a long time, and she painted each of the beaks by hand to make them as lifelike as possible.
The oldest I’ve heard of is 30 years old. When I first did the installation, the tern was 30 years old, by beak, but life ends at various times depending on how much room is available!
“It may have been 20 or 24. It’s a beak portrait of a bird, beginning with a very tiny orange one.
The piece is mounted so that, from sharp and centered to elongated, the changing light of the day shifts the shadows of the beak on the wall.
The final piece is a moving picture piece called Hide, a video of an Arctic tern in flight, edited to eliminate the film’s own image of the tern. The whole works as an image of movement and life in this one space, of Kovanova’s own concern for our “ecological entanglement,” of our position in the center of nature that, despite our actions, continues to move on.