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The Vultures: US artist Kathleen Griffin exhibits at Meta House

By: Meta House Posted: June-16-2011 in
Meta House

Between life and death there is a space, dividing the here and the next. In this margin is the habitat of the vulture, mourning the transition and holding the wake. He consumes both pain and disease, tearing the wound from the body. Taking in everything, braiding it into his own flesh, his own DNA. He gathers the last flavors of life, the first taste of death in his mouth. Carrying the creature across the space in his body, keeping it company as it faces the darkness.

Kathleen Griffin’s new series of drawings, “The Vultures”, is based on her time in Cambodia with scientist Yula Kapetanakos, whose research focuses on the conservation of Asian vultures.

In collaboration with NGO’s located in Cambodia such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Birdlife international, and with the Cambodian Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Ms. Kapetanakos has been able to collect thousands of feathers over several years that will provide crucial information on vulture population numbers and the rate of survival for individual birds. Ms. Kapetanakos uses the unique genetic information found in each feather much as a detective would identify individuals based on fingerprints

Stored in the DNA of each feather tip is a wealth of information that will lead not only to a greater understanding of the biology of this important and under appreciated animal but to entirely new ways of more accurately monitoring populations.

While spending time with Ms. Kapetanakos in the jungle, Kathleen Griffin learned that the questions and struggles of preservation and the reality of the sources available to it, are too often focused on man’s interest in preserving animals that he narrates into the ideals he aspires towards or finds visually beautiful. Despite its magnificence and scale, the vulture has not been a creature that draws our sympathies or resources; it is a creature that we project our own fears onto, fears of mortality and fears of our own darker nature. We have anthropomorphized its character into a villain and then looked away as our decisions decimate it.

In the last ten years several Asian vulture species have declined by over 98%. The largest declines have occurred in South Asia where in the last 20 years the use of an anti-inflammatory drug for treating ailing livestock had an unintentional yet devastating impact on vultures. The drug, diclofenac, proved fatally toxic to vultures and in less than one generation vulture once numbering in the millions were reduced to a tiny percentage of their former numbers. Now we are in a race against time to prevent local and global extinctions of four species – long-billed, slender-billed, white-rumped, and red-headed vultures. The biology of vultures in some ways hampers their conservation. The birds are long-lived, produce only one chick per breeding season, and do not reach sexual maturity for several years. They are difficult to monitor because they travel huge distances and their nests are often difficult to access.

And the challenges that vultures face for survival are many. Vultures have evolved with large migratory herds of hoofed animals but decades of hunting have decimated wild sources of food for these birds. Loss of habitat and secondary poisoning are more recent, yet also troubling threats, However, there is reason to hope and reason to act. Three of the species listed above continue to breed in Cambodia’s Northern Territories, a region that has become an oasis in Southeast Asia for vulture populations. Diclofenac has not been introduced for veterinary purposes here and there are strong efforts being made to conserve the habitat where the birds live and breed. Over the last seven years Cambodian government and non-profit organizations have worked to monitor and protect these critically endangered birds and their efforts seem to be paying off with increased breeding success.

However, so long as this creature continues in the margins of our animal narratives, misaligned with what we do not value, we will not work to protect it, it’s extinctions will be certain and soon. Awareness is the first defense against their demise.

The exhibition at Meta House (Art Café/upstairs) opens on Friday, 17th June, 6PM and runs until 17th July. It is an attempt, not only illustrate the beauty that Ms. Kapetanakos works to document and preserve, but to recontextualize the vulture into a creature whose roles and qualities we value. For this show, Mrs. Griffin has produced large drawings in graphite and silver, which pair the conceptual space of drawing with the transitional and essential role of the vulture. It is a creature that looks at death, not the cause but the record of it. Somehow, that is its crime.

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