Alexander Heim’s first solo show in the UK is inspired by the feral pigeon’s appropriation of the city. ‘Doves’ (2008), the title of the installation, is a reminder of this much-maligned bird’s romantic ancestor, the rock dove; a connection made more evident in German where the word for both pigeon and dove is the same: die taube. Paying tribute to its reputation as the most urban bird of all, Heim observes the fluency with which the pigeon exchanges its natural habitat of sea-cliffs and mountains for town gutters, railway stations and outdoor cafés. His new film Costa (2008) tracks the daily activities of pigeons at a busy coffee shop, following one bird scratching about the feet of commuters, another skittering across a marble floor and a third bracing itself against the wind on a concrete ledge, solemn as an eagle. With painstaking care they hunt for scraps beneath glinting metal chairs, clamber up gigantic steps and outwit oblivious shoes. They look faintly ludicrous but supremely resourceful. The birds’ perspective translates familiar surroundings into foreign territory; a station concourse gleams like an immense frozen lake, its menacing cashpoint the mouth to hell; the complicated shadow of a railing is not a reminder of an environment shaped by caring human hands but a welcome rush-hour haven. In a city planned with no thought of pigeons as its users, these benighted tacticians are transcendent.
The film’s visual incongruity is heightened by its score of keys clinking on a table, the running of water, a hair-dryer blasting and the spray of perfume. Heim has used this kind of aural dislocation before, setting his film of swans on London’s Regent’s Canal to techno music (Grand Walk, 2005) and applying a gloriously lush soundtrack to a stray’s encounter with busy traffic in China (Untitled (Dog), 2006). The technique works by emphasizing the human characteristics of these animals; here, for instance, the deftness of a bird picking its way along a wall is captured by the sound of teeth being neatly brushed. It demands a kind of internal re-tuning, since sounds transposed in this way seem both more expansive and more penetrating. Heard in a new context, the efficient noises of a woman preparing to go out are as curious as the world viewed at pavement level. (In an annexe room off the main space Heim’s exquisite photographs of paving slabs suggest the ground is chequered with formalist compositions.)
Three fag-ash-grey sculptures arranged near the projection demand further adjustment of perspective and expectation. Functioning as screens or makeshift roosts, these monoliths have edges curved for flight and lumps of brick anchoring them to the floor. On closer inspection it becomes clear they are made from papier mâché, their surfaces swirled with stubs of print and tiny flecks of colour: the city’s news regurgitated as runic graffiti. On the far wall three earthenware bowls float like notes on a musical stave. Each one has a droplet of broken glass melted into its centre, lustrous against the gritty texture of the clay. One gleams penicillin-green, bubbles piercing its skin, the edges delicate like lace; another is blue and almost black at the centre; a third is aflame with neon orange. Heim’s alchemical flair with found materials creates objects that are uncannily like fossils, remnants of a past geological age preserved for centuries that have somehow fetched up in the gallery.
Heim strips away the literalness of everyday life, revealing the mysteries contained in the most commonplace. It is no coincidence that he selects the least loved of all birds to be the focus of this lyrical inquiry. The ubiquitous pigeon is emblematic of those inconsequential things that surround us, the routine stuff that so often goes unexamined. The result is no dour pronouncement by the artist on the fate of the dispossessed but a witty celebration of existence on the margins. The birds come across not as pitiable outcasts but as profound seekers after truth; driven by some internal compass they make their own way in the city, discovering their own paths, becoming poets of their own acts.
First published in Issue 119