“I haven’t stood in line for art since the Venice Biennale” said Gemey Kelly, director of the Owens Art Gallery, during her opening remarks last Wednesday night at the opening. The line for Calgary-based artist Rita McKeough and Sackville-based artist Graeme Patterson’s collaborative installation, Murmurations, stretched across the length of the gallery.

Returning to the Owens the next day, I realized how necessary it had been to limit the number of visitors into the gallery room. Murmurations should be seen alone.

The gallery was nearly silent when I first entered the room. Towering paper trees spread throughout the room, animated starlings converged in the corner of a large-scale projection to my right and dozens of motorized leaves danced on the wall to my left. The leaves acted independently of one another, some bouncing, some swaying, others spinning out of control. They were like characters.

I approached the centre piece: a player piano standing in the middle of the room. More leaves were nestled into its keys and roots climbed out of its base, crawling throughout the gallery. One voice spoke, and then another. The piano sprung to life, banging out a dissonant, random progression of notes. Fans whirred into life, oscillating back and forth, rustling the leaves even more. A soundtrack began to play as the starlings changed formation. In an instant, the gallery became a thriving environment.

Moving around the installation and examining every inch of the space, I began to glean more insight into this cacophony. I discovered that the paper trees were really piano rolls for a player piano, printed with text that spiralled around the trunks, encouraging  readers to dance around the trunks. These texts were lyrics of love and nature.

I stood still for a while and the gallery went quiet. When I moved again, the gallery reanimated – starlings, piano, fans and all. I realized that my movement was the catalyst for the reactions of all these objects.

Murmurations is an immersive show that begs to be explored. Everything in the gallery is triggered in some way by the audience via sensors, making visitation an essential component of the artwork. You tell the piece to begin. You tell it to end – all of this simply by moving forward or standing still.

The banter between you and the art is essential to understanding the artists’ communication and environmental concerns reflected in the exhibition. The work implies that our conservation efforts are necessary to help the environment thrive. With inaction and ignorance, we will keep hurting the environment’s well-being. This call to action is done in the most delicate of ways. That’s what Murmurations is: subtle and immersive.

A must-see, Murmurations is on view at the Owens  until Oct. 24.

Player piano adorned in leaves and vines symbolizes accord between music and nature. savannah mileen harris/the argosy
Player piano adorned in leaves and vines symbolizes accord between music and nature. savannah mileen harris/the argosy

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