The title of this work is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s story of The Happy Prince. Fly Over My City is a mixed-media work made in London in 2023. Ostensibly about a migratory bird and the threats it faces, at the project’s core is an autoethnographic exploration of how connection with nature can rebuild the senses and ease the path of recovery.
The common swift is the world’s fastest flying bird. It spends most of its life on the wing and is difficult to understand or represent. While swifts are associated with British cities, making their nests in holes in buildings, they are an international species and ‘our’ swifts spend most of the year following rains in sub-Saharan Africa, arriving here in May to breed. Their transient, mysterious nature and screeching call are highly evocative. Through history they have inspired folk tales and been likened to souls and angels. However, they are threatened by lack of nesting sites as we demolish old buildings and make building structures less porous, leading to a halving of breeding populations since the mid 90s. While volunteer conservationists are doing all they can, environmental protection is often looked at through a rural, rather than urban, lens. This means the importance of the built environment for nature can be overlooked.
Fly Over My City is a layered work that contemplates the urban environment as a habitat, as well as the deep connection that Londoners have to wildlife around them. It also considers the forces influencing the decline of swifts to have affinity with the forces behind the changes we are seeing to the way we meet the needs of people to live full lives.
Further, it is a meditation on activities that support re-appreciation of life. The installation comprises photographs printed on tracing paper, charcoal and ink drawings of swift specimens, a hand-made wooden swift nest box, imagined nesting materials (including hand-made cyanotype prints and West African oke fabric), a small hand-made book with reflections from Rebecca’s research, and ambient sound of London locations where swifts are found.
Fly Over My City documents life in a fragmentary and personal way, inspired by writers such as Jeremy Cooper and Sara Baume. The indistinct images of swifts, an honest reflection of attempts to represent the untouchable, reflect the elusive nature of our individuality, distinct from rigid cultures that shape us and hold us back. The range of materials used aim to emphasise the concepts of fragility and weight; being burdened versus weightlessness. The elements of play, touch, sound, indirectness and unresolved questions will allow the audience a moment to reconnect with their own exploratory senses.
Photos from installation at Free Range Gallery, London, June 2023
Images and drawings made from specimens belonging to Oxford University Museum of Natural History
With thanks to Edward Mayer for providing audio recordings of swift calls for use in the soundscape.