D Rosen

June 21 – July 9, 2023

Live-stream of Idolatry VI, 07/09/23

The Bird Feeder: A Response to D Rosen’s Idolatry VII

By: riley yaxley

We were forbidden from tampering with, or even going near, the bird feeder. If we tampered with the feeder, the birds might not return the next day. There were three feeders hung at varying levels from the three arms of a rust-resistant steel pole. The feeder was positioned between two large pine trees and a burgundy dogwood that separated my grandparents’ yard from the neighboring houses. 

My grandpa was fearsome. If we broke the rule and he caught us, he would throw open the back door and bark at us. He shrunk with age, but he retained the imposing presence of someone who was once tall. He enlisted in the United States Air Force Reserves and was called into active duty in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Afterwards, he became a union aircraft mechanic, a position he held until he retired; I imagine he admired birds because of their natural ability for flight. He sat at the head of the kitchen table opposite the bay doors, where he had a perfect view as sparrows, finches, and cardinals arrived for their own meal—a mixture of millet, grain, and sunflower seeds. I wonder if he found the sight of them at each meal comforting, like saying hello to a neighbor you see regularly even if you don’t know their name. 

Henry David Thoreau described the pleasure of bird feeders in Walden, his autobiographical account of the two years he spent living in isolation near Walden Pond. He threw unripe corn outside his door in the midst of winter to prevent waste and observed the variety of animals that came to eat: rabbits, red squirrels, jays, chickadees, and partridges. The longer the food sat out, the more familiar the animals became with Thoreau. A sparrow landed on his shoulder. A squirrel ran across his shoe because it was the quickest route for escape. The feeder has a dual benefit here: it allows Thoreau to lure wilderness closer so he can observe these creatures that came to feed with wonder; and it ensures the local fauna can survive winter. They become interdependent despite having differing motives. 

How do we understand our interdependence with nature? The sculptural works presented as part of D Rosen’s “IDOLATRY VII: Avian Feeding Rituals Under a Fowl Sun” offer one response. A short chain made from recycled pewter that resembles a backbone hangs in front of a window, small mandarin slices placed between the links, dripping sour, sticky liquid. The citrus is intended to attract bees, butterflies, and moths. Desirable pollinators. But it also attracts wasps and flies. Undesirable pollinators. Thoreau’s feeder also brought small beasts he despised. He thought jays were mischievous thieves. He preferred red squirrels. I understand. I find these pestering flies and gnats disgusting as they circle my head, land on my exposed legs, rub their hands together mischievously, rudely announcing their contentment. But this is an essential element of Rosen’s Supine Feeder—our dependence is rarely a choice. Pretending otherwise alienates us from nature, makes us blind to the wondrous network of flora and fauna we rely on for our continued survival. 

While Rosen was staying on a farm in Støren, Norway for three months, they fed the roosters and peacocks daily. They did not turn on the lights when they entered the coop and moved slowly, serenely, hoping to communicate, “I am a friend.” The birds operate on instinct, fearing violence—the daily harvest of their eggs, or potential slaughter. There is no shared language between Rosen and these fowls beyond this exchange of food. But Rosen persisted, building trust through this daily feeding ritual. The first spherical cast form—made from recycled pewter purchased from eBay and marketed to people who make homemade bullets—is like a memorial. The manure-caked feathers Rosen collected are immortalized in this metallic sculpture. It recalls a lost, interspecies relationship. It represents grief. 

A second sculpture made from birdseed and dusted with cayenne (birds are unaffected by the burning sensation of capsaicin. However, squirrels are not, which explains their watery eyes and pained face as they feast on the chunks of seed that Bird Show founder Erin Toale and coordinator Emrys Brandt transfer to a terracotta pot before replacing the mold each week.) Viewers are invited to watch as a small ecosystem of creatures gathers around these forms through a livestream. At the reception for IDOLATRY VII, Erin describes the squirrels delightfully, how their butts and bushy tails stick up from the pot as they feast. Rosen’s sculptures are an invitation to become caretakers, to place ourselves in this network of interdependence again and provide sustenance, earning the trust of our local fauna. 

I visited my grandparents’ home several months after starting HRT and sat to the right of my grandpa, who was in his usual place at the head of the table. He quietly tore napkins into smaller pieces. His physical presence had diminished even further since he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I asked him a question in an infantilizing tone and immediately felt guilty. He glared at me with distrustful, yet uncomprehending eyes. You’re sitting in Grandma’s spot, my mom pointed out and distracted him by flipping a liquid hourglass. He did not recognize me. At first, he may have thought I was my mom. We share many similarities: thick, red-dyed hair, large facial pores, a warm smile. But he obviously realized otherwise. I was a stranger. A granddaughter he never knew. I silently watched my grandma encourage him to eat a few more spoonfuls of soup. I was relieved when we left. 

My grandpa stopped tending to the bird feeder as his mental decline worsened, making it difficult to remember daily routines or lifelong relationships. Without seed, the bird feeder became a monument. The birds returned in search of this dependable food source, only to find empty feeders, and eventually their visits became more sporadic, like friends who’ve grown distant, or family members whose visits to the cemetery become less frequent as the grief diminishes. The birds must have found somewhere else to feast. Perhaps another bird feeder.