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Milton Keynes Gallery to Open Lyndall Phelps: The Pigeon Archive in July
Phelps has also devised a miniature video camera holder for pigeons to wear.

LONDON.- Artist Lyndall Phelps’ exhibition The Pigeon Archive, documents the re-enactment of pigeon manoeuvres undertaken during both World Wars, through photographs, film and other paraphernalia.

In the Second World War it was recommended that every military aircraft leaving Britain carry two pigeons in case of emergency. If the plane was shot down, pigeons were dispatched carrying the survivor’s coordinates for rescue. Homing pigeons were also parachuted behind enemy lines in order to retrieve crucial information on enemy manoeuvres for the British and Allied Forces. Some even carried miniature cameras to document military sites behind enemy lines.

Although large numbers of pigeons lost their lives through starvation, exhaustion, being killed by the enemy or exposure to harsh elements on homing flights, Phelps is particularly interested in the procedures that inhibited or denied their natural behaviour. These included restricting the birds’ wing movement by strapping their bodies with elastic harnessing before parachuting them from planes.

The first of three series of photographs Phelps has created for this exhibition captures pigeons in flight wearing cardboard tube message carriers on their back. The second sees pigeons descending through the air, bound and attached to parachutes. The third references the unlikely union of pigeons being transported, bound and incapable of flight, within the large, mechanical flying machines, Lancaster Bombers. Just Jane, the Lancaster Bomber at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, formed the backdrop for these photographs.

Phelps has also devised a miniature video camera holder for pigeons to wear, resulting in a ‘pigeon’s-eye-view’ film over the Cambridgeshire countryside which will be shown as part of the exhibition, which pays tribute to these unsung and unusual heroes.

Lyndall Phelps, based in Ely, Cambridgeshire, completed her degree and MA at the College of Fine Art in Sydney, Australia. Recent solo exhibitions include knit one purl one, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, Coded Ornithology, Babylon Gallery, Ely, Evacuate, Natural History Museum at Tring, tenderest white, The Town Hall Galleries, Ipswich, I am obsessed with detail, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, Enigma Firstsite, Colchester and Fragile, Alsager Arts Centre Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Pigeon Archive

Lyndall Phelps

During 2005, I began researching the use of pigeons in the First and Second World Wars. Homing pigeons were parachuted behind enemy lines in order to retrieve crucial information on enemy manoeuvres for the British and Allied Forces. They were a key form of communication for British spies working for the Special Operations Executive and Armed Forces on the front line.

Procedures that inhibited or denied pigeons their natural behaviour are of particular interest to me, such as the wearing of message carriers that were strapped to the body with elastic harnessing and the parachuting of pigeons from planes without their use of flight. These are extremely poignant, in light of the reality that large numbers of pigeons lost their lives, mostly through starvation, being killed by the enemy or exhaustion and exposure due to harsh elements on homing flights.

The Pigeon Archive will document, through photography, video and sculpture, the re-enactment of pigeon manoeuvres using re-constructed wartime equipment. Three series of photographs have been created, the first captures pigeons in flight wearing cardboard tube message carriers on their back. The second sees pigeons descending through the air, bound and attached to parachutes. During both Wars pigeons were dropped from aircraft in this way, in the hope of retrieving crucial information on enemy activities.

In the Second World War it was recommended that every military aircraft leaving Britain carry two pigeons in case of emergency, this was rigidly adhered to by Bomber Command. The third series of photographs reference this unlikely union, there is something incredibly moving about pigeons being transported, bound and incapable of flight, within these large, mechanical flying machines. Within Lancaster Bombers the pigeons were stored adjacent to the Radio Operator’s position, combining cutting edge technology with an age old form of communication. Just Jane, the Lancaster Bomber at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, formed the backdrop for these photographs.

Since the beginning of the 20th century pigeons have been used for surveillance purposes, this escalated during both World Wars. Special cameras were designed for pigeons to wear, so they could photography military sites behind enemy lines. The Pigeon Archive video shows the Cambridgeshire landscape from above; the flatness of the countryside and seemingly endless skies are revealed, crisscrossed by drainage systems, arable fields and villages. The skies are now relatively quite, in sharp contrast to the Second World War, where military aircraft dominated. The footage was taken by a pigeon wearing a small, light weight video camera harnessed to his body. It captures every turn, swoop and body movement, allowing the viewer to feel that they are the pigeon.

A sculptural work, which references historical and contemporary pigeon transportation methods, along with re-created ephemera will form part of The Pigeon Archive. A series of postcard multiples, showing the correct way to wrap pigeons before dropping them from an aircraft, will be produced for broad distribution. A special pigeon race will be held on 18 July 2009, to coincide with The Pigeon Archive being shown at Milton Keynes Gallery. Thousands of pigeons will be released from Campbell Park, Milton Keynes, and the winning bird and owner will received a specially commissioned medal. A second video will also be produced, by releasing pigeons into the race wearing video cameras.

The Pigeon Archive would not have been possible without the generous support and enthusiasm of George Large, a pigeon fancier based in Cambridgeshire. The project will be exhibited at Milton Keynes Gallery from 4 July to 30 August 2009; it will then tour to the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool (January and February 2010) and King’s Lynn Arts Centre (summer 2010). The Pigeon Archive is kindly supported by Bletchley Park and the Royal Pigeon Racing Association.

Lyndall Phelps
January 2009

Milton Keynes Gallery | Lyndall Phelps | pigeons | Allied Forces | One Canada Square | Canary Wharf | London | Coded Ornithology | Babylon Gallery | Ely | Evacuate | Natural History Museum at Tring |

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