While living in Chicago, I would walk down State Street every day from my apartment to the Art Institute where I was taking classes, my neck craning upwards in wonder at the surrounding skyscrapers of the city’s inner loop.
Early one morning, as I dodged the crowds of office workers, something on the ground ahead of me caught my attention. I approached what turned out to be a small bird – a sparrow – lying on its side, lifeless. It was a strange anomaly on the smooth, concrete grid of the sidewalk, its legs sticking out parallel like thin twigs from a fallen tree. I scooped it up without thinking, and with my heart pounding, rushed back to my studio.
I soon learned that migratory birds collide with the windows of the office towers I had found so captivating. In predawn hours, the lights behind the glass cause them to become disoriented. But, it was the phenomenon of this particular sparrow’s death and the indifference of passersby that struck me.
It was not just survival in the face of adversity or, conversely, the pursuit of happiness, which resonated with me, but our attempt to make sense of the world in which we live. It was the resolve to find meaning in life, even when it may be futile to do so.
The anxiety of modern society, particularly in a post 9-11 world, is a much-discussed theme: technology turned against us, the unbridled power of the corporate state, and the individual’s alienation from others around us. However, it was not just survival in the face of adversity or, conversely, the pursuit of happiness, which resonated with me, but our attempt to make sense of the world in which we live. It was the resolve to find meaning in life, even when it may be futile to do so.
Nature provides an abundance of protagonists to draw from. The aberrant dandelion, whimsical fungus, and noxious thistle all persevere in a hostile environment in which death comes as quickly as life. Their existence is harsh and brief, their leaves scorched by the hot sun, ravaged by pests and man alike. They seem to proclaim almost defiantly in their post-emergent glory, “Behold our spiny stalks and toothy leaves! Look on these caps and laurel crowns of seeds!” What brave sentiments, despite the host of adversaries arrayed against them. These common denizens of the plant kingdom persist until at long last their seeds have been sown.
The nocturnal insects lured by a fluorescent light, beat their wings against the windowpane… They swarm desperately, gyrating as if in existential agony until they are set free by the flick of a switch into the dark, shimmering void of the night.
Or, the nocturnal insects lured by a fluorescent light, beat their wings against the windowpane. An ancient instinct guides these moths, crane flies, mayflies, and beetles. Entranced, intoxicated, they struggle for release to make their last precious rounds under the moon’s spectral light. They swarm desperately, gyrating as if in existential agony until they are set free by the flick of a switch into the dark, shimmering void of the night.
The pigeon, wandering aimlessly on the wet pavement of the street, makes its meandering imprints. Circling, bobbing its head, it is oblivious to the world around it, seemingly content to leave its ever-lasting mark. What can account for this pointless behavior? Is it confused, or mocking our rational systems of belief? “No,” the pigeon coos, “I am searching for the answer to the question which has no answer.”
How absurd, even delusional they all seem, this menagerie of anti-heroes. And yet, their very ordinariness takes on an exalted significance. They become synonymous with a journey for something greater. In these imaginary settings, the everyday resolves to transform itself through supernatural phenomena, or even magic. They vanish to an inaccessible realm as clear as it is unreal.
As with the sparrow and its mysterious demise, we are confronted by our own vulnerability and the very ambiguity of our existence. A first glance might reveal a cluster of small brown mushrooms – with all of their odd quirks, imperfections, and undesirable traits – transcendent in a celestial landscape. That would be to me a wonderfully precarious proposition.