Zebra finches in art/the magic of

Last weekend, I visited the Barbican’s Curve gallery after a recommendation from a friend. The recommendation went as follows: “there’s lots of birds playing musical instruments and it’s art so it’s like visiting an art gallery and visiting a zoo, two days out at once”. I don’t think I can add much more to that, except a vehement nodding of the head.

The piece is set in a huge, darkened room with tall walls and lots of sand dunes. You don’t know quite what to expect as you walk in, and as your eyes adjust to the light you don’t see the birds at first, just groups of people gathered round electric guitars and bronze cymbals. Then you notice the twangs of guitar strings that emanate every so often from the splattered speakers set into the ground.

Then, and only then, you see the zebra finches. Tiny little groups of gorgeousness, gathered round cymbals (their drinking fountains) or flying to and from the nesting boxes screwed into the tops of the walls. They treat the guitar strings as electrical wires and congregate there in rows, chirping to one another. Their chirps are sweet enough alone to act as musical accompaniment (apart from one oddball who, on the day I visited, was emitting foghorn-like sounds that appalled his fellow residents). As they flit about the guitar, hobnobbing with neighbours and seeking out new fun, they create the twangs that we are hearing.

And it’s magical. I can’t describe what an odd thing it is to witness. The birds themselves are fascinating enough, HD-ready as can be with their black-and-white striped necks, tomato red beaks and bright orange feathers. Then you have the music, and the reactions of the other, equally entranced viewers.

I imagine everyone’s experience is different. While I was there, one of the finches hopped up and down a guitar creating what can only be described as a Jimi Hendrix-esque riff. 

A couple of minutes in, I noticed a crowd of giggling tourists around me and turned my head to see that three finches had set up a nest in my handbag. Shortly after that, once came and sat on my head for a while. These finches are, after all, professionals. They’re supplied by Animal Actors and know exactly how to get an audience going.

With my handbag nest of finches still in place, I approached a guard and asked if this meant I could take one home. Unfortunately not, he replied, but they had been known to lay eggs in visitors’ bags, so I should watch out.

If I get a set of baby finches, I’ll recreate the spectacle in my living room. Until then, you’ll have to go to the Barbican to see the magic for yourself.

Photos, although very much wanted, are not allowed. Illustrations will have to try and take their place:


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Zebra finches in art/the magic of