Where sense of place becomes spirit of place is a fascinating area of exploration. On the Isle of Iona in summer 2018 I became more convinced that birds have an innate understanding of this subtle transgression of boundaries. La Grive is a large and multi-faceted installation that seeks to interpret and share my experience.

In previous posts I have referenced the famous clip of Oliver Messiaen transcribing birdsong in the field, a fiendishly difficult occupation requiring as much patience as genius. Commentating on his Petites esquisses d’oiseaux he observed within the rich song of the song thrush (la grive musicienne) the following, that: ‘the arrangement of durations and numbers—always unexpected, unforeseen, surprising—is obvious, yet with such a sense of equilibrium that one has difficulty believing it to be an improvisation’.

From this one must take that the birds have an ineffable ability to create a joyous, decisive and crafted song which is at once both purposeful and atavistic.

On visiting Iona I was struck by such an example. A solitary male song thrush would sing for periods of many hours at dawn and dusk from the environs of a 13th c Augustinian nunnery adjacent to the village but never before had I heard such a rich and distinctive voice: persistent yet melodious and most characteristically – with a unique dialect.  It became clear to me at least, why in this of all Islands, the bird was singing in this wonderful manner in a dutiful reproduction of the Divine Office in an apparent ruin.

I took a field recording and the work sprang from its voice.

The installation I created consists of a scale reproduction of the outline of Iona, anchored by a model shrine to St Columba from the restored Iona Abbey, and enveloped by the looped field-recording of the song thrush. The materials used are intended to honour the bird, the saint and the island, and to capture something of the interplay between the enduring legacy of Columba and his wild inheritors.

Huic vero bruto et irrationali animanti, quoque modo ipse Conditor voluit, egressurum a se dominum manifeste revelavit.
Adamnán of Iona. Vita Columbae III:XXIV

La Grive (2018) Elcock
La Grive (2018) Salt, chalk, brass, gold and audio file, 154 sq m.


Exhibited at the Independents Biennial 2018

Read the review of the installation here by IB18 curator Patrick Kirk-Smith

TEST! is a programme of new works from the artists of the Material Matters collective designed to explore boundaries of practice and performance.