The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers: 2.8 Peter Coffin

April 07, 2009 to May 02, 2009

The three pieces by New York-based artist Peter Coffin included in Passengers continue his study of behavior, through examining instincts and environments from the world around us. In his work, Coffin frequently uses strategies of displacement to make the natural seem highly unnatural.

Untitled (Gallery Soundtrack, 415-551-9206), from 2008, can be experienced remotely by calling the main Wattis Institute gallery phone number. The artist has created a series of imagined environments through the use of sounds—such as a babbling brook, playground noises, and birdcalls—that can be heard in the background of the phone line, situating callers into an environment that is highly removed from the one they assume to be dialing.

Coffin's mesmerizing video Untitled (One Minute Breach), from 2007, documents a whale breaking the surface of the ocean in one continuous circle. The artist highlights the extraordinary trait of breaching by isolating the whale's momentous leap.

Inspired by a definition of the term aesthetics as "an idea that sets humankind apart from other animal species," Untitled (2008) is based on the artist's quest for an animal that does have an aesthetic sensibility. Coffin discovered that the Satin Bower bird exhibits this sense of aesthetics in seeking out blue objects for building its nest. Using a collection of blue flowers, egg shells, and more typically trash and man-made blue items, the bird's impressive display is meant to attract mates. Visitors to Passengers are invited to participate in building a Satin Bower bird nest on a human-scale by contributing blue objects to the work, encouraging the viewer to be taken temporarily out of his own aesthetic element to adopt the bird's visual preference.

The Blue Nest
by Jens Hoffmann

In 2008, the well-known color matching company Pantone declared blue (Pantone 18-3943, to be exact) as the color of the year, stating that blue has a calming effect that was able to provide a feeling of reassurance in a changing, complex, and often-overwhelming world. Throughout history blue has played a prominent role within a diverse range of cultures and over time the color has developed a multitude of symbolic connotations. The color's symbolism involves associations to freedom and optimism when we think about blue skies and the blue water of oceans, but it also conveys security and confidence and is associated with intelligence, stability, unity, and conservatism.

Over the centuries, the color blue has been a main source of inspiration for the arts. A central symbol of Romanticism during the 19th-Century, the color was mainly associated with the Blaue Blume (Blue Flower), a mythical flower that represented a metaphysical longing for the infinite and the unreachable. From the paintings and sculptures of the middle-ages, many of which were created using a rare pigment retrieved from the brilliant blue lapis lazuli rock, to one of the most celebrated groups of artists of the 20th-Century, the so-called "The Blue Riders," which included Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter and Lyonel Feininger, to Yves Klein, who worked for years with a chemist to develop and fabricate his very own particular blue, now known as International Klein Blue, the history of art and the color blue are inseparable.

Within the exhibition Passengers, New York-based artist Peter Coffin brings art's fascination with the color blue into the realm of biological science by studying the behavior of the rare Satin Bower bird. The male bird of this species is known for collecting blue items, such as blue flowers, egg shells, and more typically trash and man-made blue items, in order to build a nest that would attract female birds. Inspired by a definition of the term aesthetics in Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics as "an idea that sets humankind apart from other animal species," Untitled (2008) is based on the artist's quest for animals that do have an aesthetic sensibility like our own. Coffin discovered that the Satin Bower bird exhibits this sense of aesthetics in seeking out blue objects for building an impressive display as part of his habitat.

Over the course of Coffin's participation in the group exhibition of Passengers, visitors were encouraged to leave blue items behind to create, over the period of several months, a human-scale blue nest made of the random blue items they had available while visiting the exhibition. Among those are obvious objects such as blue chewing-gum packages, blue lighters, blue bus tickets, but also unusual items such as an old blue suitcase, a blue bowling ball, a number of blue clothes and shoes, a blue lampshade, and a variety of blue toothbrushes and vases. While the amalgamation of blue things might represent a collective portrait of every visitor who cared to participate in the creation of the piece, the work speaks more broadly to a sensibility of aesthetics not limited to people. In this case, it is an animal that seems to act the way humans might when collecting and gathering obsessively to create an artful presentation. Our participation allows us to experience the aesthetic sensibility of the Satin Bower as we assume the perspective of the bird in collecting blue things to build a beautiful nest.