Creation vs. Curation and The Birds of Kafka

Here’s the next Prague-based entry in my #ShelfieProject:
Shelfie Three
In my pursuit of serendipitous discovery, I again went into a Prague antikvariat and looked at the few English-language books on offer. The pasteboard cover of How to Recognise British Wild Birds, published as part of The Young Naturalist Series, featured drawings of common European birds, perched or in flight, arranged in a ring around the book’s title. These drawings were appealing, and when I opened the book I found this dedication: For Mummy and Daddy for Christmas 1944. Partly because of this and partly because the book would make it easier for me to learn the English names for many of the birds I see here, I bought it.

Though I’m not a birder, I have an ongoing interest in and appreciation of birds. I can easily tell a Magpie from a Jackdaw, and I see plenty of both because I’m living on the outskirts of Prague this year and have occasion to walk near woods and grassy fields almost every day. But some kinds of birds are easily confused with others, and on the back of my recent purchase there’s a drawing of a Rook and a Crow, sitting on the same branch but looking in opposite directions. As soon as he gives a brief introduction to the book, author Eric Pochin explains how to tell the difference between the two species. I also learned that the birds that fly “in parties over the rooftops screaming on Summer evenings” are Swifts, not Swallows.

Not long after I acquired my bird book, Greg and I decided to go to the newly opened exhibit at The Rudolfinum, that magnificent Prague space for music and art events. For over 20 years we’ve been going to the café on the first floor, sometimes just for the comfortably sedate café itself and sometimes as a place to have a cup of tea midway through an art exhibit. But when we arrived at the Rufolfinum to see the Taryn Simon exhibit, we learned that the café is closed for reconstruction, like so many of our favorite spaces here in Prague. We paid our entry fees and looked longingly through the window at the now empty café space, then made our way upstairs to see what was on offer.

Simon, according to the exhibition brochure, which has a picture of a deformed tiger on its cover, is a New York photographer who “creates elaborate classifications of obscurities that sometimes hide in plain sight.” She works with photos and text, film and performance, uses methods that often take years of research, and is “one of the most significant figures on the contemporary international art scene.” The first room we entered was devoted to “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” and we learned that Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, was also a birder and he lived for some time in Jamaica. His encounter with the “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” written by ornithologist James Bond, inspired him to give his fictional superspy that name. Once I learned this, it occurred to me that my book about British birds was coincidentally connected with this exhibit of Simon’s work.

The connection pleased me and gave me reason to write this essay, but I found the exhibit itself to be hard to engage with. What Simon has done is to ferret out all the instances in which birds appear in the twenty-four James Bond films and make stills of these unscripted bird appearances. Then she arranged the images according to the locations in which the birds appear — which might be a real country like North Korea or a fictional place like San Monique. The exhibit, therefore, consists of many framed collections of bird photos in which the birds appear mostly to be pigeons or chickens, when they can be identified, and are often impossible to identify as birds at all. There’s also a display of photos of bird skins that were prepared by the “real” James Bond and some of his correspondence and personal effects. The overall impact of this roomful of carefully framed photos that don’t give a clear image of their intended subject is a sense that the fictional James Bond was so far removed from the work the real James Bond had undertaken that it was hard to clearly see from one world into the other.

In the next room in the exhibit space there were displays of images culled from the picture collection of the Mid-Manhattan Library and in the one after that there were 1,075 photographs of items detained or seized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Facility at JFK Airport. The outtakes from the image collection are displayed according to categories such as Cats and Veils, and the photos of contraband are clearly labeled and categorized. To be honest, however, the part of the exhibit titled “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” is the only one in which Simon seems to have made truly creative decisions about her subject matter — this involves places that are “hidden and out-of-view within the borders of the United States,” such as a test site at which warheads are exploded or a white tiger breeding facility of which the unfortunate malformed tiger on the brochure cover is a product.

Those of us who blog or otherwise create content for the internet are likely to have participated in the ongoing debate about the relative importance of content creation and content curation (which in some ways is like knowing the difference between a Rook and a Crow). Creation, some argue, has the highest value and is the most important contribution that writers and thinkers and artists make because without it we would just be recycling the same old material ad infinitum. But other people, especially those with more postmodern sensibilities, argue that curation is as important as creation, if not more so, because there’s nothing new under the sun, to coin a phrase, and without interested and dedicated curators much of the burgeoning mass of creative work would be lost from sight. As I viewed this exhibit, particularly “Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies,” I could see that Taryn Simon is a woman who takes curation seriously and, as her bio notes, has “an interest in systems of categorization and classification.” So in spite of the fact that I found her work a bit dry and hard to engage with, I felt real appreciation for the fact that she’s an artist in whose work creation and curation came together in a challenging way. And the fact that she brought James Bond films and serious birding together not only allowed me to include her work in this essay but also led me to do a bit of curation myself.

Right now I have only one volume of Kafka’s work in my possession — Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which came out in 2007 and contains new translations by Michael Hofmann. As I paged through it the evening after I saw the Simon exhibit at the Rudolfinum, I became a Kafka curator, finding instances in which birds appear in Kafka’s published work. The first of these can be found on the first page in the first story, “Children on the Road,” which opens with a young boy sitting on a swing, watching life go by as adults make their way home from work, children run past, and people enact their social roles. Then “birds flew up like corks out of a bottle,” and he watches them as they rise until it seems more like he’s falling than that the birds are climbing. By then it’s dark, he eats his supper tiredly, and he watches passersby lethargically. Suddenly, he’s called by his friends to come out into the world he has only been watching up to this point. He says the children then “put our heads down and butted through the evening” — and they sometimes “ran along in a herd,” sometimes lay down to sleep on the ground, sometimes hurtled along roads and over ditches with alarming athleticism. This evocative piece contains many examples of the way in which Kafka uses descriptions of bodily activity — poses and movements — to express complex notions about the way human beings relate to one another and themselves. In this story, all bodily motion becomes body language. And when the narrator leaves his companions behind and instead of heading for home sets off “for the great city in the south” where it is said that they never sleep, Kafka leaves us unsure where the dream state ends and the dream begins.

The only other place in which birds can be found in this volume (though the screaming of the nomads in “An Old Journal” is compared to that of magpies) is in a non-fiction piece called “Great Noise,” which comes near the end. This lament is just one paragraph long, and in it Kafka declares that his room is “the headquarters of the noise of the whole apartment.” He catalogs this noise, which includes his father bursting through the door and his sister’s shouted question about whether or not father’s hat has been brushed. The oven door claps shut, the front door opens “with a rasp like a catarrhal throat being cleared,” and after his father leaves, there’s more “delicate” noise that includes the voices of two canaries. Despite the fact that their voices are sweet, canaries don’t please Kafka any more than the other noisemakers. He just wants quiet.

I reached the end of the book without finding any other mentions of birds. Of course, Kafka’s name is derived from the Czech name for the JackdawKavka obecna — and in light of that fact it’s surprising that he doesn’t include birds more often in his work. But Kafka is very fond of the silence birds are apt to disturb, and more importantly he is extraordinarily perceptive when it comes to body language. The bodily movements of birds perhaps suggest to him a constant anxious wariness rather than the freedom other less insightful people think they symbolize, and so he focuses on the more easily interpreted body language of mammals instead.

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