In the shelter of a cove, a stone’s throw from a decaying and disused nuclear plant in Bataan, Bree Jonson locked herself down and out of the quarantine chaos of the city. Hoarding paint, booze, and the occasional load of toilet paper, she camped out under a thatched roof, exposed to moonlight and bugs, a nightly ceremony of rewilding. And every morning, hours before dawn rosy-fingered the sky, the assault of birdsong came.
High in the canopy, bulbuls warbled, warblers burbled, shamas and shrikes shrieked, yet remained unseen. To the untrained eye, the sound came rustling in the leaves, whistling in the wind. But the ornithologist or keen birder would know them by their mating call or territorial tune. The constant companion of this invisible aviary became the stimulus for Bree’s dive into the study of birds; specifically, their continuing disappearance, from our field of view and from the world as species.
The Philippines lists at least 84 bird species as threatened, largely due to the loss of habitat. Deforestation, logging, mining, mangrove clearing, wetlands reclaiming, hunting, and the exotic pet trade have all contributed to their endangerment. In Indonesia, the bird crisis is also driven by the culturally rooted, predominantly male tradition of keeping tiny birds locked in a cage and entering them in singing competitions. The once rumbustious forests of Java are falling silent as poachers trap thousands of songbirds to sell at wildlife markets, next to bunnies and bats, pythons and pangolins (hello zoonotic disease spread). In the post-pandemic era, restoring biodiversity for the sake of human health and survival has never been more crucial.
The carnal and animalistic depictions of Bree’s work, from her anemones and rafflesias, to her hounds and hares, pull us deeper into the nature of Nature, from which we have long distanced ourselves. We are invited, often provoked, to contemplate our separation from Nature, when in fact we exist within it. All living beings, from the smallest microbe to the largest mammal, possess their own subjectivity, a distinct perceptual world or umwelt, different from but just like us. Each are part of the complex interwebs that support life on the planet.
The title of the show, Zzyzx, comes from both the abandoned spa-turned-nature preserve in the Mojave Desert and the Malate bar where predation of the humankind can be observed every night. Birds, in all their carrion-eating, pollinating, seed-spreading diversity, remain a potent symbol and slang for women, whether silent or songful, captive or free. In a video piece collaborated on with artist friends, Bree subverts the route of escape by showing us how to dematerialize completely. Layers of clothing are discarded as she performs the vulnerable, objectifying, empowering role of the stripper. The caged bird sings, dances, teases, and vanishes, daring to claim the sky.