The first time I saw a dodo was in 1976 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They have a stuffed dodo and also a skeleton. I was fascinated because finally I got to see one of these things. I started doing research and found out that the dodos you see in the museums are not actual dodos, they are manufactured. The only thing left of what may have been a complete dodo specimen is the head and a foot salvaged from the poorly preserved bird. Now it’s in a box in a museum in Oxford, England.
The dodo is known as the poster child for extinction. Supposedly it was found in an island called Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, by the Dutch in 1598. The island was uninhabited except for some some animals. Here’s where the first sailors started doing drawings.
There was an artist called Roelant Savery who did a lot of paintings with dodos in the 1620s. They are sort of paintings of edens, with every animal in them, and tiny little dodos in a corner
Dodos have this sort of humour to them, but there is a bit of an edge too, because there are all those sayings: “dead as a dodo,” “go the way of the dodo." But also “dumb as the dodo." The Dodo Museum is a building, Victorian in nature but covered with feathers.
Inside of it there is an atrium with the skeleton of a dodo, that takes up two floors. There is a skylight, so that the light filters down.
On the walls inside there are paintings taken from the unicorn tapestries at The Cloisters in New York. I replaced the unicorns with the dodos, and I tell the stories of the dodo being discovered by the Europeans and being killed by dogs.
Outside of the museum, where the steps are going up there is a monkey on a podium, which is sort of ominous. There are also little skulls on an window in the back. They look like skulls but they are seedpods from snapdragons. It has a very dark look to it, in a very funny way.
I prefer to work on an intimate scale. It’s a sort of way of communicating one-on-one with the person. Even with the larger pieces—like the Dodo Museum— it’s hard for more than one or two people to actually look inside, because the openings are intentionally small, so that one person can have a direct and uninterrupted experience.
"The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art" opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on October 31, 2014.