Gallery: Apparitions in art raise spirits in the fight against extinctions

Author Chris Aldhous is staging an art exhibition in the South Lookout in Aldeburgh, based on his be

Author Chris Aldhous is staging an art exhibition in the South Lookout in Aldeburgh, based on his best selling book 'Ghosts of Gone Birds'. - Credit: Archant

The world has lost many species but, with the right action, doesn’t have to lose any more. John Grant visits an exhibition that helps point the way ahead

The laughing owl hasn’t got anything to laugh about, life’s not so great for the great auk and the dodo, well, that doesn’t do anything anymore.

All three bird species have tumbled into the deep, dark abyss of everlasting extinction, not so much with a helping hand from humans, more with a forceful push in the back.

No-one will ever again see, hear, experience and enjoy live examples of this tragic trio – or indeed the countless other bird species that have suffered the same sad fate.

But the owl, the auk and the dodo, along with many of their counterparts in calamity, are walking, feeding and flying once more. They have risen from the dead and can inspire again, at least in an artistic sense, thanks to Chris Aldhous and what he calls his “creative army for conservation”.

The Aldhous “army” has been on the march for four years in a unique artistic project called Ghosts of Gone Birds which is now encamped for an “art and activism” exhibition at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout gallery, a former coastguard station owned by Caroline Wiseman off the town’s Crag Path.

Ghosts of Gone Birds has “alighted” at Aldeburgh after exhibitions in previous years in Liverpool, London, Brighton and Swansea, and the publication last autumn of a highly acclaimed book based on the initiative.

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“The idea is simple,” said project creator and curator Mr Aldhous. “Ghosts of Gone Birds asks artists to adopt an extinct bird from a list of over 200 species and breathe life back into it – so we don’t lose any more. A percentage of the profits from the sale of the original art goes to help frontline conservation projects fighting to save the lives of endangered birds around the world. In addition, 50% of the royalties from the Ghosts of Gone Birds book go to help support conservation projects.”

Already Ghosts of Gone Birds had helped to highlight “critical endangerment issues” such as the illegal and highly controversial spring massacre of birds by gunmen on Malta and the trapping by netting and liming of thousands of birds on Cyprus for a black market in food - the liming being carried out by applying sticky, glue-like substances on tree branches so that any bird that perches on it cannot escape and simply hangs in agony until it dies.

“Diversity is the key to the project,” said Mr Aldhous. “To capture the breadth of species lost we want as many different interpretations of their lives as possible. It’s also a celebration of the wonderfully named but no-longer-with-us birds such as the red-moustached fruit dove and the laughing owl. In fact, we have given the artists a kind of steer away from the dodo because it has sat there centre stage for so long that people might think it is almost the only bird to have become extinct. We thought it would be great if we could educate people so that it is not just ‘as dead as a dodo’ but ‘as dead as a laughing owl’ or any of the other species – there are certainly enough other examples.”

Many of those examples are listed in the exhibition, on a panel among the works by more than 20 artists. The panel is perhaps the saddest aspect of the display. It is a roll call of the departed, a litany of loss. But, as Mr Aldhous said, it was also the “snapshot, a kind of briefing” from the book that was sent out to artists so that they could choose their subject – from the King Island emu and the Bonin thrush to the Chatham bellbird and the Kona grosbeak, to name but a few.

The artists’ interpretations are diverse indeed, just as Mr Aldhous wanted. Perhaps one work encapsulates the Ghost of Gone Birds principle better than any other. It is a collection of six mixed-media interpretations featuring whooping crane, Hawaiian crow, hyacinth macaw, palia, kokao and ivory-billed woodpecker. Each depiction of the species is covered in layers of rice paper - the longer the species has been extinct (although the macaw still exists) the greater the number of layers, so that its image is more ghostly.

Even more imaginatively, the artist, Luke Thomas Smith, has gathered sound recordings from American museums of each of the species’ songs and calls and they can be accessed via a the viewer’s mobile phone through their own QR codes that are featured in the work.

Appropriate to a seaside setting, and hauntingly beautiful, is Jennifer Hooper’s “Transmigration of the Balearic Shearwater, Studies 1 - 6”. It echoes the legend that the critically endangered species carries the souls of dead fishermen and in the studies a human form “transmigrates” into a Balearic shearwater. It is accompanied by a phonic installation by Justin Wiggan, part of which is a reference to Noye’s Fludde, the opera by Benjamin Britten, who had deep connections with Aldeburgh - and in another resonance with Aldeburgh, the Balearic shearwater, although rare and especially so in the North Sea, has very occasionally been seen passing close by the exhibition venue.

There is room for the bitter-sweet too, with Lucy Fiebelmann’s “Greater Amakihi” featuring a toffee mould of the bird in a jar of sweets - the species of Hawaiian finch having lost its habitat to large-scale sugar cane plantations.

Mr Aldhous said he did not want Ghosts of Gone Birds to be a “morbid funeral march” but hoped it would be an “activist” project that focused people’s attention on the spectre of extinction and enabled funds to be raised to combat it. “What we have lost are all these bird species and with them has gone the birds’ ability to inspire us, but by resurrecting them in this way the artists are giving us their interpretations and so once again the birds are inspiring us, just in a different way,” he said.

After many years in the advertising business – he was responsible for Mr Hungry of a certain breakfast cereal fame and The Liltman of a certain soft drinks fame, for example – Mr Aldhous is now immersed in the Ghosts project, having had art and ornithology “fused” in his mind as he grew up in Southend with a father who was interested in birds and who “thought of himself as a Jackson Pollock” and hurled paint at canvasses in his garage at weekends.

Possible future Ghosts projects may focus on forests or oceans, said Mr Aldhous. With extinctions of many forms still taking place around the world, he is, sadly, unlikely to be short of raw material.

The Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition runs at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout, opposite 31 Crag Path, Aldeburgh, until Sunday, August 10. The exhibition is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday and 11am to 6pm at weekends.

Further information about the project is available at