From god‑head to bin chook: Ibis in the Australian cultural imagination

Mechelle Bounpraseut, Late Night Maccas Run with Bae, 2017, glazed earthenware. Photo: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney. © Mechelle Buonpraseuth/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018
Mechelle Bounpraseut, Late Night Maccas Run with Bae, 2017, glazed earthenware. Photo: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney. © Mechelle Buonpraseuth/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018 

From the early 1970s, driven by drought and degradation of interior wetlands, the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus) began migrating to the nation’s coastal cities, towns and inland centres from north Queensland through to Perth. Ibis have flourished in urban spaces, where there is a ready food supply guaranteed by our endemic over‑consumption. Their robust colonisation and presence has garnered the bird a reputation as unwelcome pests and interlopers, reflected in the quotidian idiom: dumpster diver, flying rat, tip turkey, pest of the sky, trash vulture, dump chook, bin chicken, bin chook.
 
As their vernacular names suggest, the much‑maligned ibis has achieved an ambivalent status in the Australian imagination, ranging from disparagement and disgust to a begrudging admiration and affection for their tenacity and adaptability in the urban‑wilds of Australian cities. The iconic representation of the ibis is also historically and ecologically significant as the Australian White Ibis is a sister species of the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus). Though extinct in Egypt today, the Sacred Ibis enjoyed an exalted status in ancient Egypt, whereby the God Djehuty or Thoth was often portrayed with an ibis head, and ibis themselves were commonly mummified. Australian artists have picked up on these genetic and cultural resonances to engage in the bird’s evolving and precarious celebrity status as it occupies our urban–suburban waterways and built environment.[1]

The flourishing Australian White Ibis featured prominently in Something Else is Alive: Sydney and the Animal Instinct at Sydney’s Customs House at Circular Quay. This exhibition explored the paradox of Australia’s largest city characterised as being both “deeply urbane yet paradoxically wild.”[2] Grappling with this ambivalent and symbiotic relationship, Mechelle Bounpraseuth’s comical ceramic diorama Late Night Maccas Run with Bae (2017) featured an ibis, a seagull and a pigeon foraging among cigarette butts, stale bread and discarded McDonalds French fries and fast‑food packaging. While the exhibition featured domesticated animals, it was the local wildlife, including film footage of a Peregrine Falcon eating its prey on a skyscraper window‑ledge, that offered useful insights into how animals negotiate city spaces and challenge concepts of wild(er)ness and habitat.

Linden Braye, Ibis, 2016, still from performance on DVD. Courtesy and © from the artist
Linden Braye, Ibis, 2016, still from performance on DVD. Courtesy and © from the artist
Linden Braye, Ibis, 2016, still from performance on DVD. Courtesy and © from the artist
Linden Braye, Ibis, 2016, still from performance on DVD. Courtesy and © from the artist

These common themes of habitat destruction, species migration and the shifting borders between urban and wild space animate the work of Linden Braye. Her short film Ibis was first shown in the exhibition Twitchers at Articulate Project Space in Leichhardt, Sydney, in 2016.[3] Shot in black and white, the film enacts a day in the life of an ibis embodied by Braye’s gender‑indeterminate self, dressed in a black suit and an ibis mask. Wielding an ibis beak like a tool, she attempts to forage for food in wheelie bins and on picnic tables in Sydney parks, to the bemusement of onlookers. Braye’s performance as a demonstration of “phenological mismatch” underscored the brief of Twitchers to embrace the radical disjunction between traditional and new food sources. In her film Braye becomes ibis, finding food in public places, gingerly and at times ineptly demonstrating by inference that ibis are deft and skillful birds, literally carving out a space for themselves in this damaged, anthropogenic world. 

As Braye has suggested, channelling the comedic and downtrodden ibis furthers the investigation of the historically significant performance by Joseph Beuys at the René Block Gallery, New York, in 1974, I Like America and America Likes Me, in which the artist was locked in a large room with a coyote, for Beuys the embodied representative of “America” itself.[4] Braye’s engagement with the consciousness that animals and humans have of each other in the wake of habitat destruction draws attention to their increasing marginalisation, a key point made by John Berger in his seminal text “Why Look at Animals?” (1977). As Berger argues, our species has responded to the worldly “abyss of non‑comprehension” between ourselves and animals through symbolic representation, by recognising the fundamental ambiguity that animals are both like and yet unlike us. In looking at animals, Berger wrote, “man [sic] becomes aware of himself returning the look.” 

As Beuys intuited, the coyote is a cosmopolitan species regarded in the USA with deep ambivalence depending on its location. The coyote has a rich and revered reputation in Indigenous lore across North America because of its trickster adaptability. But the coyote has been persecuted relentlessly because it has thrived beyond its traditional range across the central plains and deserts of the USA and Mexico to now find homes in unwelcoming urban centres from Alaska to Manhattan to the central American isthmus. Like the coyote, the White Ibis in Australia has what Dan Flores calls “a history”: “It’s just that not many animals on any continent have a history that even comes close to the one they [ibis] have managed to fashion. We’re one of their few rivals in biography.”[5] Put another way, our relationship with ibis depends on a trans‑species intimacy that incites in us (humans) a plethora of storytelling, opinions and political positions, which are remarkable given that they spring from the quotidian ubiquity of ibis in Australia’s urban settings.

Mural by Scott Marais. Photo courtesy and © Ilaria Vanni
Mural by Scott Marais. Photo courtesy and © Ilaria Vanni 
Mural by SONSIE. Photo courtesy and © the artist
Mural by SONSIE. Photo courtesy and © the artist

Reinforcing the legitimacy of the bird’s presence in Australian cities are a number of key public murals. These include those lurid and ravenous creations by Scott Marais, which cover the exterior walls of inner‑city terraces in Teggs Lane, Chippendale, Sydney, and one by James Giddy, commissioned in 2015 by the WA Water Corporation, for the John Tonkin Water Centre in Leederville, Perth, as a reminder of traditional wetland habitats and the eco‑work of ibis as environmental labourers aerating mud flats, lake and river edges with their long beaks as they forage for crustaceans, amphibians, worms, and insects. Arguably, the most elegant ibis mural is by Paul Sonsie from Sonsie Studios: a double ibis portrait painted in collaboration with Josh Fradley in 2016 on the side wall of a building occupied by the company Yarra Valley Information Technology on St Leonards Road in Healesville, Victoria. 

In this work the two ibis are subjects of undeniable beauty in what can be read as a refutation of ibis as dirty, ugly scavengers. For Sonsie, the Manichean reception of the ibis—for him a bird with “street cred”—motivated his creation of a mural that would attract street‑level differences of opinion: “From the first day of painting the birds, the conversation ignited. From passers‑by there was a mixture of affection for the piece and also some minor rage for glorifying them.”[6]

Murals function as decoration (also camouflage) for buildings and as a form of disruption, spawning a proliferation of social media followers through photo opportunities, particularly when rubbish bins placed near the murals attract the very bird featured in the works. But the ultimate role for the Australian White Ibis as avenger across social media has to be the mockumentary Planet Earth: Bin Chicken (2017), directed and produced by Matt Eastwood and David Johns, with a voiceover from Rupert Degas that mimics the authoritative accent and tone of David Attenborough. At the time of writing the film had garnered over 2.8 million views as a YouTube link shared on Facebook, attracting hundreds of online comments. Parodying the narrative and visual style of the BBC’s Planet Earth series—the struggle for survival in nature’s “harshest” environments—it opens with a classic aerial shot and sublime soundtrack. But this is no remote wilderness; rather, it is the vertical skyscraper landscape of Sydney’s CBD, all grey walls of concrete and glass.

Matt Eastwood and David Johns (Directors/Producers), Planet Bin Chicken, 2017. Photo courtesy David Johns
Matt Eastwood and David Johns (Directors/Producers), Planet Bin Chicken, 2017. Photo courtesy David Johns
Matt Eastwood and David Johns (Directors/Producers), Planet Bin Chicken, 2017. Photo courtesy David Johns
Matt Eastwood and David Johns (Directors/Producers), Planet Bin Chicken, 2017. Photo courtesy David Johns

The script builds in momentum as it tracks a day in the life of this “awful” bird shown careening down from rooftops to gather its prey from the rubbish bins that provide a playground for “dumpster diving.” These bins have helped spawn what the film claims is an “entirely new subspecies, the Australian bin chicken. A species, that has evolved as a superior scavenger, adapted to feed from a never‑ending food source, our waste,” it is thoroughly in communion with the “toxic” ecology of the city.

Scene after scene of the devouring ibis demonstrate its talent for adaptability, including a sharp honk, “a vocabulary that communicates with the city traffic” and its perfect beak “that has grown and adapted to be able to pierce plastic and find morsels that any other creature would deem not only inedible but unrecognisable, a meal fit for a king.” Disavowing the pristine wilderness generally featured in the Planet Earth series, life is shown to survive “in the harshest environment on planet earth,” our polluted cities. 

This film can be viewed as a comment on the traditional wildlife documentary critiqued by the environmental geographer Jamie Lorimer for promoting the affective logic of the sublime: “The aim here is to evoke the overwhelming size, power and alterity of nature to provoke admiration, reverence and fear.”[7] But here the joke is on us, as the conclusion following the predicted mass extinction of the human race is Planet Bin Chicken, the endgame of the Anthropocene. Hail the “feathered overlords,” as the stand in for Attenborough proclaims, to a closing shot of an ibis head shown looming god‑like in space. 

The fundamental ambiguity of reactions to ibis in our cities was also evident in the polarised social and traditional media responses to the ballot in late 2017 run by Guardian (Australian edition) and the country’s premier bird conversation organisation, Birdlife Australia, to identify Australia’s favourite bird. The contest was won by the Australian magpie, with the bin chook a close second. That vote outcome may indeed signal a groundswell shift to align ourselves once again with animal totems, not merely as Claude Lévi‑Strauss famously argued “because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’,”[8] thereby assisting us to recalibrate our own abyss of non‑comprehension as to our own threatened animal status.

Mechelle Bounpraseut, Late Night Maccas Run with Bae, 2017, glazed earthenware. Photo: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney. © Mechelle Buonpraseuth/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018
Mechelle Bounpraseut, Late Night Maccas Run with Bae, 2017, glazed earthenware. Photo: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney. © Mechelle Buonpraseuth/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018 

Footnotes

  1. ^ The African Sacred Ibis remains endemic in much of sub‑Saharan Africa and parts of west Asia, where it also takes advantage of human waste as a food source.
  2. ^ Something Else is Alive: Sydney and the Animal Instinct, Customs House Sydney (17 August 2017–22 February 2018).
  3. ^ Twitchers, Articulate Project Space, Sydney 16–31 July 2016.
  4. ^ Dan Flores, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, New York: Basic Books, 2016, pp. 233–34.
  5. ^ Ibid. p. 34.
  6. ^ Personal communication with the author.
  7. ^ Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 131.
  8. ^ Claude Levi‑Strauss. Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham, London: Merlin Press, 1964, p. 89.

Paul Allatson is an Associate Professor in the School of International Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Andrea Connor is a post‑doctoral fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

Card image: Mechelle Bounpraseuth, Late Night Maccas Run With Bae, 2017, glazed earthenware. Photo: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney. © Mechelle Bounpraseuth/Licensed by Viscopy, 2018

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