Born 1969, Sydney. Lives and works Canberra
Raquel Ormella’s practice encompasses video, objects, drawing and writing. Her work can be divided into two broad thematic streams: political language and its effects on national identity; and the complex relationship between humans and the natural environment. Ormella brings these together through a critical self-awareness and a consideration of the ethical roles and responsibilities of the artist. She has exhibited regularly in national and international exhibitions since 1999. In 2015 she was an inaugural Spiros Zournazis Memorial Fellow at the Australian War Memorial; her research focused on depictions of animals in the collection, particularly horses on the Western Front in World War I.
In Raquel Ormella’s artwork, language plays a central role in responding to socio-political changes that affect life cycles within the environmental sphere. In the case of her performance lecture, City Without Crows (2015–17), Ormella speaks with a self-reflexive voice on the trade of endemic native birds in the local caged-pet market of the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.
Birdwatching for Ormella means attuning to the ecology of her surroundings. It is a way of understanding conservation, often through looking for what is missing. In a fertile and tropical climate such as Indonesia, which has the potential to sustain a diversity of life in a small amount of space, one would anticipate a greater variety of birds than in a cooler climate such as Sydney. Arriving in the thriving outdoor street life of Yogyakarta, Ormella expected to at least encounter scavenger birds, possibly crows, but there were none.
In the most readily available field guide for Indonesia, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia (2012) by Morten Strange, Ormella spots another ‘loss’. (1) As scientific indexes, these books legitimise, to a certain extent, one’s capacity for identification. To spot a bird is to analyse it, first personally and then in relation to a description. While certainty is difficult, a field guide is an essential part of this process. Alongside Strange’s written description and image of the bird, a phonetic interpretation of its voice is also included. For the local readership of Strange’s guide, this English translation of sound to language is lost, making the bird and its voice near impossible to recognise. This glaring omission forms a central current in City Without Crows, as attention is turned towards the limited perspective in colonial scientific knowledge.
The work is positioned in relation to a series of sonic landscapes of Yogyakarta, which draw audiences into confrontation with the absence and presence of birds. Ormella compares the insistent, displaced call of a caged forest bird in the cacophony of the bird market with the spacious experience of hearing the call of a rainforest bird through the dense foliage of its native habitat. (2) The observations raised by Ormella in this performance are also shared with a new generation of scientists, social scientists and ornithologists who form part of the growing conservation movement in Indonesia. Conversations between the artist and this community marked the beginning of a series of ornithological questions that inform her work. These drift in and out of different languages: cultural, economic, geo-political, human and non-human. As Indonesia and Australia share bioregions and bird species – in addition to a history of territorial conflict – City Without Crows addresses threats to the survival of common bird species to reflect on human relationships across national borders.
The distinction between humans and non-human animals has traditionally rested in the capacity for language. Many non-human animals, however, also vocalise, even if our abilities to decipher this communication are not (yet) possible. Ormella’s work is framed by the limits of human understanding and expression. By seeking to be more open to ‘the animal’ that exists outside language, Ormella places the human within the frame of the discursive exchanges of birds. (3) From here, she addresses the radical difference of animals and their intrinsic right to remain separate from us.
Text by Sarah Rodigari
(1) Morten Strange, A photographic guide to the birds of Indonesia, Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo, 2012.
(2) Interview between the artist and author, January 2017.