What we are up to

Battle for the birds

by Nick Holloway

I sketched a note on a flyleaf once an idea for a comic book centered on a small brown bird who, despite his dishevelled appearance and a left wing permanently damaged in a run-in with a horse and cart, and despite being a thinly disguised criminal responsible for many brutal raids on other birds nests (or by merit thereof), rose through the ranks of bird society to become a powerful lieutenant of the bird-in-chief, eventually deposing his master and inflicting an evil reign on treetops everywhere. His name: Joseph Starling.

Problem: I can't draw birds for shit, let alone figure out how to render one with a distinctly Russian air. I do own a book called 'How To Draw Birds', but – as I am fond of reminding people to a chorus of groans - I stopped reading when I realised it wasn't a book of chat-up lines.

So, the comic got relegated to a mental compartment marked 'One day', along with a proposed flirt with guerrilla gardening (spelling out Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, in the daffodils the poem rhaps about, on a hill overlooking his National Trust-maintained birthplace), and a Japanese-language film about a paedophile whose obsession (in a sort of Takeshi Miike reimagining of The Krankies) is a middle-aged woman who dresses as a schoolboy.

Still, my dreams of Joseph Starling were re-awoken when I saw Garrett Phelan's Battle for the Birds.

It's not the first time Bluecoat, where Phelan's work features as part of new exhibition The End Of The Line, has betrayed a liking for avian art. Alec Finlay's designer nesting boxes have decorated the art centre's grounds since it reopened, after a long refurb, in March 2008. By last winter, the avifauna had moved indoors with Sean Hawkridge's The Hinterlands, an artwork that featured, among other things, a stuffed barn owl wearing an ipod. (What it was listening to we can only imagine - 'Taxidermy' by Queen Adreena, perhaps.)

Phelan's birds, drawn with pen and ink, are different again. For one, they wear military helmets and night vision goggles. They're weaponised, a bit like the explosives-laden, kamikaze parrots used in Burma during the Second World War. Think the Crow character in Ted Hughes' 1970s series of poems, or the creatures the giant lizards doing battle in Mustard Magazine's excellent comic strip, Nazi Vs Dinosaurs, would eventually evolve in to: Phelan's birds are here to fuck up the place and peck peoples eyes out unless their demands are met. An 'Avian Declaration', written in language recalling the Irish republican movement, takes up one corner of the exhibit.

We might do well to hear their demands. In Liverpool, at least, the fate of the city balances on a wingtip. There's an urban legend, much like the one about the ravens leaving the Tower of London, that says as much: were the Liver birds, symbols of the city that sit atop the twin clock towers of the Royal Liver Building, ever to fly away, Liverpool would sink beneath the waves.

The bird disaster theory, applied to Liverpool and, in fact, much further afield, has more corroborating evidence for it than you might think. Is it a coincidence that the year naturalists on Merseyside linked a drop in migratory bird numbers to the installation of a number of statues by Turner Prize winner, Antony Gormley, on their habitual feeding ground, a high tide wrecked a local ferry terminal? And is it possible that flamingos, abandoning their low-lying breeding areas in Sri Lanka prior to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, could - rather than sensing the event - have actually caused it?

Part of End of the Line: Attitudes in Drawing, Battle for the Birds is on at Bluecoat, Liverpool, until July 19.