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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

The disappearing act of the saltmarsh sparrow

An image from “Elevation #1: escape/release/escape.”Courtesy of Bell Gallery, Brown University

PROVIDENCE — Last week, the United Nations released the overwhelming news that one million species are facing extinction. Bryndís Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, who make art about the impact of humans on animals, offer a way to process it.

For “The Only Show in Town,” their bittersweet show at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, the artists joined forces with the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative. The sparrow, ornithologists agree, will disappear within 50 years because of real estate development and sea-level rise. The exhibition takes the viewer to Jacob’s Point, a marsh in Warren, R.I.

First, the artists introduce us to the habitat. Ceramic tiles impressed with the names of habitués of the marsh lie on wooden pallets in “Elevation #4: cascade.” Northern wild rice, prairie warbler, red-beard sponge, human being. The rectangular tiles undulate with the delicate air of fallen leaves.


Photographs depict the sparrows’ hard-to-find nests, little whorls in dried grass. An exquisitely magnified photo of glasswort, a saltmarsh plant, is printed on back-to-back scrolls more than 14 feet high; it looks like brawny bamboo. This, the artists say, reflects the bird’s vantage point. Glasswort is lumber for its home.

Wandering through the exhibition, we see traces of the sparrow, but not the bird itself. Then, in the photo series “Elevation #1: escape/release/escape,” researchers’ hands release newly banded birds. Focus and tone are unearthly, dystopic: the hands crisp; the marshy background a deeply blurred, unnatural blue-purple. The birds fuzz out of focus as they hurtle away. There’s no question which party in these photos holds the power.

By now, Snaebjörnsdóttir and Wilson have sparked a longing for a clear view. There’s tender satisfaction when the bird finally appears, crisp and calm in a brief video loop. “Elevation #5: hide/blind/hide” is a bird blind, a shelter used by birdwatchers. A window reveals the sparrow, alert and fluffing up; we don’t see any monitor, and the wee thing looks uncannily real. But it’s an old trick, the video reflecting in a mirror, an illusion. The bird is not here. And soon enough, it will be nowhere.



At David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through July 7. 401-863-2932,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.