The work of Indian-born British artist Sutapa Biswas—whose Birdsong at the Cooley Art Gallery coincides with work on display at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery and a performance at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's Time-Based Art Festival—often explores issues of gender as well as cultural and ethnic identity. But the work included in Birdsong is hardly so overtly topical. Instead, the show's paintings and two films succeed on a strictly aesthetic level. The show's lush imagery is so enthralling that interpreting its meanings is akin to the effortless work of a child solving a riddle. Put another way, there's no need to laboriously decode the artist's esoteric intentions when viewing Biswas' films. That's not to say that they lack rigor or detail. Rather, they're full of enough allusion and painterly construction to bear up to any level of scrutiny a viewer wishes to apply.
The show's focal point is the mesmerizing seven-minute film, "Birdsong" (2004), presented in dual projections. While it consists of a straightforward sequence of four shots, the film's dream-like meditation on desire and fantasy is harder to describe with the same concision. It opens with a sustained shot of an origami Pegasus, light glinting on its silver surface as it twirls from a string. It takes a matter of seconds for a viewer to process the information in the shot, but, as the camera lingers, the image's function begins to evolve. The stillness of the shot begs the viewer to begin reading the moving image as if it were a painting: how the out-of-focus window pane creates frames within a frame; how a swatch of sky in the upper right-hand corner of the image compositionally balances the silver-blue color of the Pegasus; and so on.
In the second shot, the viewer sees a close-up of a round-faced young boy (Enzo, the artist's son). Enzo peers off-screen as well as into the camera and his face embodies a range of emotions: sad, distracted, and, as a smile sweeps over his face, happy. His face is intermittently hidden by a shadowy figure, which, in the following shot, is revealed to be a horse. This shot is, in comparison to the previous two, an explosion of visual information. Enzo is seated in an immaculate and distinctly English living room, toys scattered at his feet, his eyes transfixed on the enormous horse towering over him. Of the four shots, this is the shortest. While the previous two lingered well beyond the amount of time necessary to communicate their contents, here the image of Enzo and the horse is fleetingly revealed, jarringly removed like an abruptly interrupted dream. Then, Biswas returns the viewer to the twirling paper Pegasus for the film's final shot.
In the juxtaposition of the four shots, a fairly linear narrative can be inferred. The origami Pegasus is the pivotal object that inspires Enzo's daydream. In fact, in an interview included in the exhibition catalogue, Biswas explains one of the first phrases her son ever spoke was, "I want to have a horse." The artist's treatment of the Pegasus reflects her son's childish dream, unsullied by reality. It shimmers and spins, charged with a transporting power that triggers the boy's imagination. In the second shot, for example, we see the fantasy working in Enzo's mind through his pensive looks. And as the horse increasingly intrudes into the frame to obscure Enzo's face, Biswas literally manifests the object of the boy's fantasy taking possession of his vision. This idea is reinforced in the slow fades to black between shots, like a sleeper's eyes shutting and then reopening to the extravagant cinema of the subconscious. When the film returns to the origami Pegasus for its final shot, we are reminded that dream is an ephemeral experience; after the flight of fantasy, the dreamer must return to reality, grounded. But what is important for Biswas is that magical moment when disbelief is suspended, like the mythical horse that takes to the air only when it is suspended from a nearly invisible thread.
Throughout Birdsong, flight is a signifier for such moments of transcendent imaginings. In the show's other film, "Magnesium Bird" (2004), the artist simultaneously ignites 100 tiny sculptures of birds, made out of flammable magnesium tape. Comprised of a single tracking shot of a series of fires burning in an astonishingly green field at dusk, the film lasts only as long as the fires burn. The fires in "Magnesium Bird," like dreams, are extinguished shortly after they are ignited, but, for Biswas, that brief, beautiful flare offers redemption—however short-lived.