Jack’s a ripper
Melbourne Museum's bowerbird artist
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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A fog machine rolls gentle mist over the quarter-acre block of Museum Victoria’s forest gallery. In a far patch of lacy ground-fern, a twig structure, bowed on both sides like a Norse ship, lies at the centre of an abstract installation of blue plastic bottle tops, ribbon, a pencil sharpener, tinsel, a biro lid, an infant-formula scoop. From a high branch, watching those who survey his work is black-feathered, violet-eyed Jack, a satin bowerbird of advanced years. At 20, Jack is nearing the end of his life yet he’s not slowing down.
To the frustration of museum staff, he feverishly builds backup or decoy bowers around the forest, scattering azure debris and turning this exhibit into his own extended work of art. The gallery’s horticulturalist, Andrew Kuhlmann, shows a visitor the site where Jack is supposed to maintain just one bower. A warning sign reads:
YOU MAY BE ON CAMERA:
Live webcam capturing bowerbird activity in the area.
Kuhlmann, 42, a lean man of two metres, points towards a camera discreetly installed on a fake charred tree that is part of a nearby bushfire display. It’s currently recording a few blue scraps tangled with wet twigs. The museum-keepers regularly move Jack’s bowers within range of the webcam, “but he’s not happy with that, so he’ll come along and dismantle [them] and use the materials to build a new one.”
Trained as a printmaker, Kuhlmann worked in various media before moving into horticulture and conservation. He arrived at the museum in 2006 and now enjoys the aesthetics of his role in the forest gallery. “In the back of my mind, it’s an artificial environment,” he says, “a man-made thing” meant to represent Victoria’s tall mountain-ash forests. But when he sees moss or fungi developing – “they’re like little ticks [of approval]” – he knows he’s doing the right thing. “My intention in my job is making the gallery look […] as it should. I know even on a subconscious level it will affect people’s experience, [and] having Jack really prominent helps draw people into the space.”
Like all his forefathers, Jack collects blue objects, sometimes arranging his collection in order from smallest to largest so as to create the illusion of perspective, the better to lure mates into his bower, just as Kuhlmann attracts museum-goers. Should the season be right, Jack will also perform a courting dance in front of his work. As sunlight refracts off his feathers and they take on a sapphire sheen, his blue decorations are supposed to make him appear all the more bedazzling. But, as those tuned in to the bowercam perhaps already know, like many ageing artists, Jack is finding his muse harder and harder to satisfy. Brittney, his mate, often resists his creations. And there’s a younger rival on the scene, Errol.
For years Jack has bullied Errol with relentless energy, but now Errol’s plumage is turning from green to black, the mark, at seven, of his coming of age. He bides his time, watching Jack with a view to first copying his style and then pilfering his collection. Errol’s a plagiarist and a thief – though he might say he’s just referencing.
Kuhlmann claims so far it’s unclear whether Errol is a successful bower builder because “whenever he tries, Jack comes in and destroys his work. Once there was another male here who was a rival to Jack. He wasn’t a black male yet, and he could never build a bower: he’d just put a few sticks together and give up. But then he was moved to Queensland and the next day he built a complete, fully functional bower.”
Bowerbirds have long been considered intriguingly similar to humans in their heightened sense of aesthetics, although we can also project other anthropomorphic foibles onto them. Kuhlmann has always enjoyed working alongside Jack, but he feels an added affinity for the bird after reading an article on its distant relatives, central Queensland’s regent bowerbirds. They select the fruits of brightly coloured potato-bush plants to spruce up their bowers and, in doing so, cultivate the plants, making them the only non-human creature known to grow flora for use other than as food.
Likewise the trophy hunter can see himself in the MacGregor’s bowerbirds of Papua New Guinea, who decorate their bowers with beetles. (Humans are the only other species known to kill fellow creatures just for decoration.) The dancer, the singer, the weaver, the collector, the patriot – one Australia Day, a small national flag was sighted in Jack’s bower – even, well, the necrophiliac can all find some reflection: Shane Hughes, a keeper at the museum, tells me one of Jack’s previous mates was found on his bower, dead. “Jack was displaying her and he’d been plucking feathers from her as well [to decorate the bower].” When the keepers found her that morning, Jack was still performing for his dead mate, “doing his dance to get her in the mood”.
Enclosed by steel mesh 12 metres high, the forest gallery, says Kuhlmann, “is possibly the most highly monitored landscape garden in Melbourne”. Keepers, horticulturalists, cleaners, multimedia technicians, fog machine specialists, and plant health and soil experts help make the gallery run smoothly.
The one element that can’t be controlled is Jack. He’s the exhibit too busy with his own gallery to be on display, the collector who can’t be curated. And limiting the spread of his blue treasure, which to the unschooled eye is trash, has become Andrew Kuhlmann’s constant chore.
The horticulturalist admits to having seen better bowers in National Geographic but he doesn’t underestimate the pressure Jack’s under. “I’m amazed at how he maintains his animal personality in such a space. From seeing animals at zoos, where they’re pretty sedate, and don’t really do that much, his level of activity is just extraordinary. He’s never still; he’s always thinking, planning his next move.”