SALEM — The French artist-musician is quiet, ducking out for another Lucky Strike before returning to tinker with his arsenal of electric guitars. But his bandmates won’t shut up. They’re birds — 70 chirping, swooping zebra finches. And Céleste Boursier-Mougenot needs them.
You see, the artist doesn’t use his fingers to play the Gibson Les Pauls mounted around a white-walled gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum. He depends on his winged collaborators to create the wash of power chords that have turned his installations into a sensation from London to New York City.
“I kind of feel a sense of amazement every time I see it,” said Trevor Smith, a contemporary-art curator at the Peabody Essex, where Boursier-Mougenot’s sonic exhibition opens Saturday. “You’re hearing these extraordinary sounds, and they’re made by these birds. It’s both primal and very unexpected.”
So do birds landing on guitars count as art? Yes indeed, according to critics around the world. Boursier-Mougenot has garnered rave reviews, particularly in London, where he staged a version of the piece at The Barbican Centre in 2010. “Hate Modern Art?” a headline in the Telegraph read. “Guitar-playing exotic birds will change your mind.” Time Out London called the show “as uplifting as it is entertaining,” and Crystal Bennes, a critic for The Architectural Review, hailed the installation as “utterly enchanting,” adding that “it was difficult to believe it was only the random movement of birds, claws scratching, beaks sharpening, take-offs and landings, producing the music.”
Of course, most art exhibitions don’t require a museum to hire a veterinarian. At the Peabody Essex, Dr. Elizabeth Bradt makes a weekly visit to the piece, called “From here to ear,” to check on the finches. There are other special requirements, from twice-a-day cleanings in the gallery to a thermostat kept at 75 degrees, slightly warmer than normal. Cymbals, upside down on the floor, are filled alternately with birdseed and water for drinking. A series of hanging nests serve as finch “condos.”
The idea behind the installation, which will be on view through April 13 as part of the museum’s “FreePort” contemporary-art series, is to get visitors to consider how they perceive and interact with music, says Smith, and to bring an element of our environment alive in an unexpected way.
At the Peabody Essex, 10 white electric guitars and four black electric basses are mounted horizontally on stands, facing up toward the ceiling. Boursier-Mougenot has open-tuned each instrument to form different chords, so there’s little dissonance.
The orange-beaked birds aren’t interested in pulling off Jimmy Page riffs. They simply want something to perch on. And every movement, whether a quick skip or repeated pecks, sends a slightly distorted charge through nearby Fender amplifiers. The result is an endless, unpredictable, reverberating surge of sound that wouldn’t be out of place during a Yo La Tengo set at Bonnaroo.
This is not the first time Boursier-Mougenot has mounted such an installation. In fact, this is about the 17th variation, he guesses, on an idea he first attempted in the mid-1990s. But this is the largest of his bird shows, with 30 more finches than he has previously used. And the artist’s compensation arrangement with PEM is special. The guitars are part of his payment, allowing him to stage future exhibitions without renting instruments.
The birds have proved popular elsewhere. The Barbican installation sparked lines outside the London gallery, with visitors willing to wait, on average, two hours. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched YouTube clips from that exhibit.
On a recent afternoon, the artist worked in the gallery to make final adjustments before the show opens. He tinkered with tunings and volume levels, huddling over a laptop and a floor plan. He also loosened the stands to tilt the guitars side to side. If he wanted more bass frequencies, he made sure the thicker strings were higher and an easier target for the birds. If he wanted higher notes, he adjusted the instrument the other way.
Dressed all in black, his close-cropped hair peppered with gray, Boursier-Mougenot, 52, could pass as a Gallic version of one of his heroes, Lou Reed. Growing up in Nice, he learned to play saxophone and violin and listened to avant-garde jazz players like Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor as well as experimental composers such as Morton Feldman and La Monte Young.
Over the years, he has developed a variety of sound-based works, whether 13 vacuum cleaners outfitted with harmonicas or a series of video surveillance cameras whose images could be converted to sound through processors.
He came up with the idea of incorporating birds into his work in the early 1990s. He first tried with sparrows. That didn’t work well.
“They smell a lot,” said Boursier-Mougenot. “Sparrows are also wild birds. Very afraid. These” — he motions to the finches surrounding him — “are much more domesticated. They want to perch. They will know very soon that this is their territory and will feel more and more secure.”
The PEM finches were raised in captivity and rented from a special animal casting company, making it easier to have them mix with humans. But the gallery is set up to keep the audience away from the performers, and only 20 people can walk through the space at one time. Rectangular islands of sand create a series of pathways, offering the birds sanctuary and providing the museum with a sensible way to deal with the inevitable result of bird digestion. (An environmental-hygiene plan is in place to comply with health regulations.)
The birds, Smith said, were not immediately interested in embracing their inner Eric Claptons at the museum. They needed to get used to their surroundings after being released from their cages earlier this month.
“Right away, a handful went straight to the guitars, and others were gathering on the ground,” said Smith. “Then we started noticing courtship dances, and you find a guitar where 10 or 15 finches will be lining up. And it’s like a branch.”
As the opening approaches, the artist acknowledges that he finds it hard to stop making adjustments. A twist of a knob can shift the mood from hard rock to blues.
“Each chord has to have its own color,” said Boursier-Mougenot. “I’m improving until I have no more time.”