Deviser: Duke Riley
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
As the audience takes their seats in the open air beneath a near-cloudless summer sunset, several of the cast emerge to give a preview of the show ahead. Normally, this can be a fraught time: the threat of interaction, of enforced jollity, can ruin rather than enhance the show to come.
Not in this case. For the participants in this show are not actors, but birds. Pigeons, to be precise: curated and cared for in a custom-built loft by American artist Duke Riley. Huddled together on the loft roof, small groups will occasionally break off, twisting and twirling together in sixes and sevens, flying in groups for the apparent sheer joy of experiencing the Juneevening air.
And then the show real begins. Originally conceived and performed in Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2016, Fly By Nightattaches small LED lights – weighing no more than a standard bird ring used to identify each pigeon – which illuminate the sky as the pigeons flit through the evening air.
Riley and his fellow pigeon trainers use flags and whistles to persuade the pigeons to leave their loft en masse. The effect is, quite simply, breathtaking. The family of pigeons breaks off into several large groups, murmurating across the darkening sky. The swarms of lights give the effect of biomechanical fireworks, constantly exploding apart and rushing back inwards overhead.
Presented as part of LIFT 2018, this UK premiere of Riley’s work has been co-commissioned by Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, housing association Peabody (in celebration of the 50thanniversary of the nearby Thamesmead estate) and arts festival 14-18NOW, which has been marking the centenary of World War I with art installations across the country.
Homing pigeons were used as a vital communications in the Great War. The outdoor site of this performance, adjacent to the majestic Victorian pumping rooms of Crossness sewage works – whose aroma hangs on the nostrils throughout – is on the site of the Royal Arsenal, the huge secret factory complex that churned out weaponry for war.
Whether the sight of birds flocking in the darkening skies is an adequate tribute to those lost in wartime, who can tell. As a piece of theatre, it has its limitations: perhaps due to a lack of variety, perhaps due to the remote location and evening timeslot, certainly the audience was starting to leave before the display was over.
But as a piece of art it certainly succeeds. And while the word ‘unique’ has a tendency to be overly used in such circles, it is far from inappropriate here. There is nothing like Fly by Night, and to witness it is to witness something beautiful.
Continues until 23 June | Image: Contributed