Why shorebirds in the Immigration Museum?

By Harry Saddler | 30 Mar 16

Flyway Print Exchange | Kate Gorringe-Smith | Immigration Museum

Australian culture, we’re often told, is a beach culture. With a narrow strip of habitable land clinging to a coast of 26,000 kilometres, the sea is never far from our dreams. Or our nightmares: as an island nation we’re not so much girt as moated by the sea, and our elected leaders – as well as a great many of the Australians who elected them – seem intractably attached to a paranoid notion of keeping the drawbridge up.

A coastline, though, can be a conduit as much as a barrier, and not just for human migration – as the Flyway Print Exchange, an exhibition currently on display at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, makes clear. The brainchild of Melbourne artist Kate Gorringe-Smith, the Flyway Print Exchange celebrates the extraordinary lifecycle of migratory shorebirds – three dozen species of which visit Australia every summer.

The shorebirds fly to Australia from their breeding grounds in Siberia, following migration routes some 10,000 kilometres long. In March, they turn around and fly all the way back again. The network of countries through which the shorebirds migrate is called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – and it’s from this that the Flyway Print Exchange gets its name, and its curation. In organising the exhibition, Gorringe-Smith invited artists from countries throughout the flyway to contribute prints. The resulting exhibition consists of artworks by 20 artists, from nine different countries.

One of the great joys of walking around the Flyway Print Exchange is seeing the variety of approaches that the artists took to their task of depicting shorebirds and their migration. From Kyoko Imazu’s realist etching to Helen Kocis Edwards’ linocut of a bird spliced with a page from a Melways street directory; Radhika Gupta’s comic strip to Hyun Tae Lee’s simple, minimalist print which consists of simply the word BIRDS and an arrow stamped on a white field above a strip of blue; Gorringe-Smith’s star field with blue lines perhaps representing magnetic fields, suggesting the means by which birds migrate, to Tham Pui San’s colourful, vibrant print, which somehow suggests the buzz of Singapore without depicting a single building or human-built object – the Flyway Print Exchange is always engaging.

Or perhaps, more sinisterly, they bring to mind the human detritus that wild animals must now navigate.

The Flyway Print Exchange is a travelling exhibition, and one of its central conceits is that two copies of each print are displayed: one framed and behind glass and carefully sent from place to place so as not to damage it; the other unprotected and sent through the post as it is: no padded bags, no packaging. The exhibition has been touring since September 2014, and the unprotected prints are worn, creased, covered in stamps; the protected ones are still pristine.

Yet, if anything, it’s the unprotected prints which have more life: they’ve obviously been somewhere. And if the prints are avatars of the birds they depict, the stamps adorning them bring to mind the leg bands and satellite trackers that scientists affix to shorebirds to study their migration.

Or perhaps, more sinisterly, they bring to mind the human detritus that wild animals must now navigate. Migratory shorebirds, as the Flyway Print Exchange’s exhibition notes point out, are suffering precipitous population declines worldwide, as the mudflats on which they feed are encroached upon from all sides by human activity: polluted by damaged rivers; destroyed by unsympathetic developments; flooded by rising sea levels.

With this in mind, the Flyway Print Exchange’s protected prints resemble nothing so much as the glass cabinets full of stuffed birds that populate the world’s natural history museums: relics of a bygone age of bird collection; reliquaries too for a bygone age of biodiversity. Compared to their flight-worn counterparts, the protected prints seem almost inert, lifeless. It’s an almost unbearably poignant effect.

At the entrance to the exhibition, a sign asks: “Why shorebirds in the Immigration Museum?” The reader of this review might ask, also, why shorebirds in Right Now? We live in a world full of movement, in which many of us seek constantly to soften the borders between nations – borders which shorebirds and other migratory animals remain oblivious to.

At the Immigration Museum, if you go upstairs from the Flyway Print Exchange you’ll find an interactive display created by Gorringe-Smith: a table in the centre of the room provides information about selected shorebird species, along with stamps of the birds, pens, coloured circles of paper, and string. You’ll have to bend down to access these materials, though, because above the table hang hundreds of the paper circles, all – as per the display’s instructions – stamped on one side and written on the other. Written in any number of languages. People telling the stories of how they came to be at the Immigration Museum, or in Australia, and how they feel about what they’ve learned about shorebirds. On the day that I visited, a group of school children were taking in the display. The kids were of many backgrounds: African, Asian, and European.

“Why shorebirds in the Immigration Museum?” The museum answers its own question thus: “The world is enlaced with the invisible tracks of centuries of human migration. It is also spun about by the paths of animal migrants.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the story told by the Flyway Print Exchange is that it’s only a fraction of the whole: the exhibition concerns itself only with birds found in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – but there are nine flyways in the world, covering every continent on earth.

Human migration, too, is a global phenomenon, and the world is made smaller by the seemingly endless story of refugees fleeing to every corner of the world in search of safety. It’s easy, then, to see the parallels between human migration and shorebird migration – both moving, both hoping to find a better home when they land. As the world’s human population puts ever more pressure on the non-human world, it might be worth asking ourselves: in addition to safety, and shelter, is delighting in the extraordinary animals that we share this world with, animals that are rapidly disappearing, also a human right?

The Flyway Print Exchange was on display at the Immigration Museum until 27 March 2016. Click here to view the exhibitions currently on display at the museum.

Harry Saddler is a Melbourne-based writer who is working on a book about migratory shorebirds, to be published by Affirm Press in 2017. He tweets @MondayStory.