Returning to the Nest

by Elisabeth Hill

Sydney Lancaster’s 21st Century Nesting Practices is an ongoing body of work initiated during the artist’s 2012 residency at the Harcourt House Artist-Run Centre, which itself concluded with a solo show entitled NEST. The exhibition currently on view at the McMullen Gallery in the UofA Hospital is described on the artist’s website as a “more intimate, personal” exploration of the themes initially developed in NEST. The McMullen  iteration of the exhibition, which has also been presented at the Fleishman Gallery, Toronto, Art Gallery of St. Albert, and as part of Elsewhere at Gallery @ 501 in Sherwood Park AB, also features new video work and a new sound installation.

Three works stand out as primary pieces. Humannest, 2012 – 2015, a bird’s nest made to human scale hanging in the center of the gallery, Up/Nest/House, 2017, the new video piece, and Small Nests: 360 Gestures, 2012 – 2015, a wall of small, square gel transfer photographs on birch mounted on a grid. Other works include two large scale photographs of the inside of birds’ nests (also gel transfer on birch), softly rendered charcoal and block print images of birds’ nests in white on black, spikier, black ink line drawings which outline the shape of nests in tree branches, and another stand out piece – Bridges triptych, 2015 – a compilation of three semi-transparent silk banners with text and photographs of birds’ nests woven in. The entire exhibition is tied together by a bird song which fills the space, courtesy of Lancaster’s own field recordings and the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

In contrast to the photographs, prints and drawings which make up the bulk of the exhibition, Humannest stands out with obvious strangeness. Made of branches not as densely woven as a real bird’s nest, Humannest casts a dramatic shadow below, emphasizing the illusion that it is hovering above ground. The nest hangs just below head height, so the viewer can see inside with a little difficulty. It is large enough for an adult human to recline in, slightly curled. It seems to invite the viewer to climb in, although on closer inspection it doesn’t seem like it would hold the weight. I found myself contemplating just how comfortable it would be.

Behind Humannest is Small Nests: 360 Gestures, a grid of 360 square photographs of birds’ nests in trees. The trees and nests are darkly silhouetted against the sky, sometimes with buildings visible in the background or on the edge, indicating that these are urban nests. The trees are bare of leaves, which on an aesthetic level reveals the dramatic, spiky shapes of the branches and nests themselves, but on further consideration also indicates that the photos were taken in late fall or winter. These nests, then, are abandoned, either permanently or until they can be rebuilt in the following spring.

Up/Nest/House combines lines of text with the same square photographs of nests in trees featured in Small Nests. The video begins with the title “Memorynests”, which I take to mean that the lines of text make up a poem of that title. The text is shown one or two sentences at a time, either fading in and out or scrolling from the bottom of the screen to the top, alternating with the photograph which fades or scrolls in a similar manner. Each fragment of text encapsulates a childhood memory. Some fragments are narrative memories of events, while others are sense memories which evoke a place, person or relationship. In addition to references of family figures, schoolmates and neighbourhood children, the memories are populated by animals, birds, and the natural environment. The cycle of the seasons is evoked, as winter, summer and spring-like memories seem to be grouped together. Because of its emphasis on memory and childhood, the piece also struck me as very personal. The fragmented images evoked by the short pieces of text are so vivid that it did not leave space in my own mind for my own associations and memories to surface. Rather than prompting associations and reflection upon my own childhood memories or the theme in general, the video captivates with a portrayal of another person’s childhood memories.

The exhibition statement refers to “the human penchant for investing significance in objects in the material world” and states that “This work explores the tangible reality of specific objects and its relationship to what those objects may signify psychologically or emotionally to people,” but the exhibition seems more characterized by ephemerality and the absence of things than by the presence of, or attachment to, material objects. Perhaps we are to read the image of the nest itself as a symbolic stand-in for those emotionally- and psychologically-laden objects. In Up/Nest/House, however, it is intangible, fragmented memories which themselves form the “nest”. Interestingly, most of those memories are saturated by ephemeral and immaterial qualities – sound, smell, quality of light. Among the more melancholy aspects of the video are references to grandparents, who are remembered more by their absence than their presence. The memory of the smell of Grandfather’s chair, which was kept long after his death. The artist’s statement on her website refers to her interest in the “gaps” – things unsaid, speculation and edits. The incorporation of memories of absence (an almost paradoxical concept) into such a vividly descriptive compilation of recollections adds depth and emotional complexity to the work.

The title of the exhibition and its description piqued my interest because it evoked my own associations with the idea of “nesting”, a topic which has been on my mind recently as I settle into a new apartment. Like many people my age, I typically move every year or two. While material possessions can be a burden on moving day, I tend to carry things – Ikea furniture, pictures, decorative knick knacks, even practical things like kitchenware – with me from move to move because they create a sense of continuity, even if they are arranged differently and the window views change from year to year. I derive great satisfaction and sense of wellbeing from creating and constructing a space that is entirely mine, whether in a room within a shared house or in an apartment entirely to myself. I think of nesting as the act of creating a home, and at this stage of life I am happily creating that home for myself alone.

Sydney Lancaster’s exploration of the idea of the nest and nesting goes beyond the warm idea of home-making to examine a more primal concept of the nest as the first, original home; the place where our personal ideas of home are first formed. Up/Nest/House is about childhood. The text is, I assume, constructed out of the artist’s own childhood memories and evokes her earliest memory of the nest. Of the two large scale photographs of the insides of nests, the one with eggs inside, titled Calculated Risk: Occupied Nest (2013), refers to risks and anxieties that accompany the creation of the first home for a next generation. The other large scale photograph, titled Empty Nest (2012), is of a nest that is empty, hopefully (but not necessarily) signaling that it successfully served its purpose as a place of safety, security and nurture before being abandoned.

Writing about 21st Nesting Practices and NEST on her website, Lancaster describes the nest as symbolic of home, security and a desire to return. She also questions this conception of the nest, noting that the primal nest, the childhood home or family dynamic, is not always the safe and secure environment that it purports to be. Some of the works in the exhibition refer to the straightforward connotation of the nest as safe, secure and nurturing with titles such as Shelter, Sanctuary and Refuge (2012). Others introduce more ambiguity, such as the striking black ink line drawings titled Absent Nest and Calculated Risk: Occupied Nest, which implies a mix of hope, anxiety and uncertainty in the nesting process.

The artist acknowledges that individual personal history informs responses to the idea of the nest, including her own response and I suspect that our current stage of life also affects what it means for us to “nest”. Often in our twenties, the act of nesting is self-interested. The homes we create for ourselves, and the things we carry from home to home, reflect a process of individualisation and a new stage of identity formation after leaving our original “nests.” I imagine that the act of nesting takes on very different significances in the context of raising a family, preparing to do so, or when looking back on the experience. 21st Century Nesting Practices looks at nesting from a much longer perspective than the associations I brought to it, reflecting on childhood, origins and the idea of new generations in a way that did not immediately occur to me, as a childless and not-quite-settled 20-something.

The McMullen Gallery is located in the University of Alberta Hospital, where it serves as a space of respite and renewal for patients, family and staff. It is appropriate, then, that although there are elements of ambiguity and complexity to examine, the overall atmosphere of the 21st Century Nesting Practices evokes feelings that are everything a nest should be – calm, comforting and peaceful.

Sydney Lancaster’s 21st Century Nesting Practices is on view at the McMullen Gallery until February 25, 2018. The gallery is free and open to the public Monday to Friday 10 AM to 7 PM, and noon to 5 PM on weekends.

Photography courtesy of the McMullen Gallery and  Sydney Lancaster.