Studio Window — April 24, 2013, 12:00 pm

Balint Zsako’s Birds of America

Collages after John James Audubon’s Birds in America

Balint Zsako. Photograph © Natalie Matutschovsky

Balint Zsako. Photograph © Natalie Matutschovsky

I sat down with Balint Zsako, an artist whose work has appeared several times in Harper’s Magazine, for coffee on Bleecker Street in Manhattan a few weeks ago to talk about his current project, a series of collages titled Birds of America. The work, based on John James Audubon’s illustrated series of the same name, juxtaposes Audubon’s birds with Old Master paintings, creating wildly imaginative narratives while examining the history of collage.

Zsako was born in Budapest, Hungary, and lived in West Germany and Canada before moving to Brooklyn. His paintings, drawings, sculptures, and collages focus on the universality of the human form and of shared experience. We began by talking about Birds of America, and wound our way toward cave-painting methods and Western ideals of beauty. 

EM: Can you provide some background on your Audubon series? 

BZ: I’ve been making the images for a few years now, and they’re always changing. It all started when I found this small book of reproductions of Audubon’s birds — this lovely little book that’s as thick as it is wide, and it contains every one of Audubon’s Birds of America. There are 435 plates, so my project is to make a unique collage for every one of them. I don’t mix birds from one plate to the next, so my work becomes a taxonomically correct alternate to Audubon’s version. 

In the originals, sometimes they’re fighting, sometimes they’re injured, so there’s a little bit of narrative, but mostly it’s straightforward depictions of birds. For my series I can create all these wild stories: in some of them the birds have a small part to play while all of these other things are going on, and in others the bird is the main focus and it’s obvious that they’re the most important part of the image. 

At first I made collages that combined the Audubon birds with Old Master paintings in a seamless way. These look like they could have been painted in the eighteenth century, but then if you look closer they are weird, or the narrative isn’t what you expected, certainly not consistent with the conventions of the time. And the more I’ve been doing them, the more they’re changing. They are tracing the history of collage. So I’m going from the collages Max Ernst made with his engravings, all the way to John Stezaker or John Baldessari, who do things that are the equivalents to film editing, in which one scene falls after the next. That one’s like that [points to his collage in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s] where it’s like three scenes from a film connected by cuts but with the narrative carrying over:

Birds of America, Plate 65; Wood Duck [Summer or Wood Duck]. Collage courtesy the artist

Birds of America, Plate 65; Wood Duck [Summer or Wood Duck]. Collage courtesy the artist

EM: How do you decide which Old Master paintings to use — that is, which new contexts to place the birds into?

BZ: I love the Strand bookstore because they have enormous quantities of Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction catalogs. The quality of the reproductions is fantastic, as good as you would find in a beautiful art book. They only cost a few dollars, and so I have a stack of catalogs that’s as tall as I am. I cycle through these and keep looking, and in a way that’s the work — looking is the work. You’re spending time finding the right character, or finding the right hand, or finding the right story, and then figuring out how to make it all fit together.

I also like the fact that they’re not well-known paintings. Many that show up in those auction catalogs are by people I’ve never heard of — a nineteenth-century Dutch still life by a minor professional. It’s not like you’re cutting up the Mona Lisa. Then you’re dealing with the history of that image, which can be heavy. Though I have done the Mona Lisa in this series, but only because somebody had copied it badly — which is kind of funny. But for the most part I like to use obscure images.

EM: What is the relationship between the birds and the people in the collages?

BZ: Well that’s complicated, and goes into the history of the prints. Audubon created this amazing set of artworks, but he also shot and killed all the birds he painted. So that’s one underlying relationship I’m trying to get at. In my collages, I’m expanding the world in which the birds and the people interact to make it far more complicated than the passive and aestheticized natural-history one. Sometimes the narrative is literal — a naturalistic representation of a situation that, no matter how strange, could happen — and other times the bird is a symbol of a conflict, or a mental state, or an emotional state.

Birds of America, Plate 176; Sanderling [Ruddy Plover]. Collage courtesy the artist

Birds of America, Plate 176; Sanderling [Ruddy Plover]. Collage courtesy the artist

EM: You’ve talked elsewhere about your desire to depict archetypes and archetypal experiences. In many of the collages either the face is removed, or it’s covered up by the birds or some other sort of flora or fauna. Are those things related? Does the creation of an archetype mean covering up the face, and thereby removing the personality?

BZ: That is a part of it. Without a face to identify with, it becomes more a question of the universal human and the universal human experience. But it’s also practical, in that it makes you look around more. If, as a viewer, you see a face, you’re immediately attracted to it, which makes it difficult to focus on what else is going on in the image. Without that face, you look around to see what are the hands doing, what are the different elements of the picture doing. 

EM: Looking at your entire body of work, you cover the whole history of representations of the human body, from really early anatomical engravings to drawings of cyborgs and machines. What effect do you think technology is having on the body, and on representations of the body?

BZ: One of the first paintings was made by someone who put red pigment in his mouth and essentially spray-painted the outline of his hand on a cave wall. That example of the intersection of ingenuity and anatomy is a precursor to a future where we can change what form the body’s going to take and so how we’ll value it. 

Today, in many places from Korea to the United States, we have airbrushed ideas of human beauty, and some people find that attractive. But that’s an abstract ideal; many people go in the opposite direction, fetishizing the flaws in the body. These possibilities will make things more interesting. Who knows what’s going to excite when you have all these options available to you? 

I don’t want to take a position whether this is morally good or bad. I find humans fascinating. I want to convey in my work that people are amazing, that the things people do — whether barbarous, saintly, or funny — are always surprising.

Share
Single Page
is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today