According to Adrian Göllner, the 19th-century ornithologist John James Audubon claimed to have seen 10,000 birds in a day. Using this figure as a comparison point, Göllner’s latest body of work, All the Birds I Saw Last Year, tracks the number of birds he observed and recorded on his cellphone in the course of his day-to-day life in Ottawa (with added excursions to Cuba, Nashville and Victoria) from September 2017 to September 2018. The result is an exercise in conceptual ornithology that draws critical attention to environments both inside and outside the gallery.
Göllner has worked in a variety of media at many scales, but a consistent activity that threads through his practice has been the visualization of data. An earlier work such as Political Landscape (2007), for example, took various statistical graphs charting the decline of voting in Western democracies and combined and presented them shorn of context in a vinyl installation that resembled an abstract mountain range. Although this new work also has political and environmental connotations—Göllner’s yearlong count added up to a little more than 14,000 birds, suggesting a precipitous decline since Audubon’s time—the inclusion of naturalistic representations of birds anchors the conceptual abstraction of its raw data and lends the work a much broader appeal.
Twelve prints represent the twelve months of Göllner’s birdwatching, set within frames approximately three feet wide and ranging from three to ten feet high, custom-designed to fit in the former auto-repair shop’s available display area. Each bird sighting (be it a single instance or a flock) is represented by a one-inch-square image of that bird appropriated and scaled-down from various field guides. These strings of data—which vary in length from week to week, season to season and location to location—form a catalogue of recognizable birds that surrounds the viewer, creating an almost immersive environment.
Göllner has also fittingly used a smaller space on the gallery’s second floor as a control room that provides several keys to the exhibition. There is a vitrine that presents his research materials (including field guides, pamphlets, notes and binoculars); a comprehensive legend of the birds that appear in the exhibition; and an image of what Göllner calls the Average Bird 2017–2018 (2018), which combines, using morphing software, all of the birds he saw into one composite image. It’s a spectre of what the future might hold as the natural abundance of bird species is perpetually displaced by a few hardy survivors and a cautionary reminder of the simple importance of everyday observation and reflection.