A story at TeamRock alerted me to artist Vladislav Shabalin’s latest work, a collaboration with Peter Hammill’s mighty prog band Van der Graaf Generator. The Earlybird Project, now on display in Thailand’s Bantak Petrified Forest Park, combines a 220-million-year-old fossilized tree trunk (a specimen of Araucarioxylon arizonicum, the state fossil of Arizona) with birdhouses that play Van der Graaf’s song “Earlybird.”
Previously, Shabalin collaborated with Diamanda Galás on a 2011 sound installation called Aquarium. A dissident artist in the former Soviet Union, Shabalin’s work got him diagnosed schizophrenic and committed to a Soviet psychiatric hospital. He writes that he bought his freedom from the hospital and its regimen of electroshock therapy by bribing his doctor with his collection of forbidden Led Zeppelin LPs, procured at great expense on the black market. In 1988, after his “rehabilitation,” Shabalin founded a space called Avantgarde, which his bio says was “the first exhibition center in the USSR devoted to unofficial art.”
Shabalin has posted the following description of the Earlybird Project installation at his website:
The EARLYBIRD PROJECT: a work in progress
For a long time I’ve worked as a restorer of fossils, which gives me the opportunity to use some fossils for my art. Several works of mine relate to environmental issues, pollution, exploitation of the land, climate changes, forced migration.
Some time ago, I restored a fossil tree trunk from Arizona dating back to the Triassic (220 million years ago approx.). It is 7 meters long and weighs 2,200 kilos. The petrified wood is a spectacle of colours.
The idea of a sound installation came to my mind when I remembered “Earlybird”, from Van Der Graaf Generator’s album Alt. On the inner cover of the cd there is a note on this particular track: “The earlybird you hear here is of course, not from rural Cornwall but the heart of Camden, the morning idyll shortly to be shattered not by frolicking swallows, but by groaning refuse trucks and the curses of itinerant blackheads.” I had met Peter Hammill before, so I decided to contact him and, through him, the other members of the band, Guy Evans and Hugh Banton. The three of them have willingly accepted to collaborate on the Earlybird Project.
The main element of the installation is the fossil tree, to which I have attached 3 birdhouses that I made using exclusively stone with traces of fossils. Small loudspeakers have been placed inside each of them to replay “Earlybird”.
The installation is a huge still life representing a natural world that no longer exists. Everything in it is “artificial”: the trunk is no longer wood but stone, the birdhouses are petrified, too, and could never be used as real birdhouses, and the birdsong is a recorded music track. The trunk is also a fetish to which we give a great economic value. We devote much labour and care to its restoration, in sharp contrast to the careless relationship that we have with the trees (flora) and the birds (fauna) that live here and now.
Some videos will be also included. I’m currently checking with the film archive La Cineteca del Friuli the possibility of using 3 particularly significant excerpts from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Offret (The Sacrifice). Also, I have made 6 more birdhouses, some of which have already been shipped in different parts of the world. The plan is to complete the installation with 6 videos: 3 shot in big cities and 3 shot in important parks – in Asia, Europe and America – with remains of fossil trees in the open air.
A note about the recurrence of the number 3: I have chosen the “perfect number” (which is also the number of the members of the VdGG) for the high symbolic value it has in almost all civilizations, eras and religions: the cosmic totality of the Chinese (Heaven, Earth, Man), the divine triads in Christianity and Hinduism, and so on. Environmental destruction goes hand in hand with the contempt of our ancestors’ history and legacy.
The Earlybird Project should be first exhibited in Venice, a city built on stilts – houses “attached” to tree trunks – and which has a particularly delicate environmental balance.
The short video clip below, from Shabalin’s website, shows the artist arranging the fossilized trunk and the singing birdhouses.