Leila Jeffreys: High Society

To experience more than a fleeting moment with birdlife can be pure luck, to capture it time and again is skillful. So it’s our good fortune that artist Leila Jeffreys has dedicated a career to this generative process of crafting these exquisite portraits and has expanded her signature with new three-panel video works, underscoring the splendour of nature and similarities between wildlife and us. Since 2008 Jeffreys has engaged with photographic portraiture, working alongside experts such as conservationists and ornithologists, explored the world and spent time in bird sanctuaries. On first glance the images might appear straightforward, which belies a juggling act of patience with her subjects, considering the compositional and conceptual qualities of the image and dedicating time to post-production. As Dr Sarah Engledow of the National Portrait Gallery has said, they are ‘singular works that have often – alas – been imitated but have never come close to being equalled.’ We spoke to the artist ahead of her show opening in Sydney, which will be on view in New York thereafter.

What can art do for the environment?
A great purpose of art is to allow us to be reflective. One of the biggest problems we face these days is that we are so busy. Art can be a reminder of deeper issues and can offer us the space and time to consider these issues. It almost stops the thinking of everyday busy life and gets you to feel.

Why are birds a good example of symbiosis in nature, and focus for your work?
Birds do a huge job for the environment. One of the things I’ve really tried to focus on in this exhibition is the symbiotic relationship between birds and trees. Trees provide food and shelter to birds. The symbiosis occurs because the birds serve the trees as well by dispersing seeds and pollen. This can happen over really vast distances and is essential for ensuring survival of flora and fauna.

I’ve been drawn to birds for a long time now because many are such social beings with extremely complicated societies. Each of them is an individual character. I think that for humans this makes them quite relatable; we can see a bit of ourselves in them. There are parallels in how they live their lives and how human beings exist: social structures and the roles they play in relation to the environment.

Leila Jeffreys, A still from ‘Nature Is Not A Place To Visit. It Is Home’, 2019, video art, 8 mins, 30 seconds. Filmed on Phantom Flex4k camera.Courtesy the artist and Olsen Gallery, Sydney

With your solo, paired and group works of birds are you sending a message about collective consciousness and free will?
Yes. When I was photographing the flocks of birds in trees, I began with blue budgerigars. They flocked to the tree straight away. It was exciting because they did what I hoped they would do. After that I moved on to photographing the green birds in the tree. They refused to land in the tree for four hours. I had the idea to take a couple of birds – the blue birds from the previous session – and release them into the set. The first thing they did was fly to the tree. Then there was a magical moment that was like watching snow fall. One by one the whole flock flew to the tree. It was a really special moment for me. I could see their collective consciousness in action.

It really drove home our similarities. Like humans, birds live in social groups. Like us, they develop their friendships and relationships. We are all drawn to people that reflect our own values; we find our tribe and we move together and look to each other to make decisions.

The tension between collective consciousness and free will is present in all of us. It takes a few brave individuals to lead. It’s extremely relatable.

Describe the role of technology in this new series. How has video affected your process and the
artistic outcome?
Technology has been really exciting for me in relation to this series, especially when it comes to filming the flocks. Watching their movement while I was photographing them made me realise that if I want to produce really powerful work, moving images can convey the great beauty to the birds adding another dimension to the work, particularly when it comes to capturing them mid-flight. Working with the world’s best slow-motion camera (the PhantomFlex4k) has given me the ability to show people birds at a speed that their eyes can process. We can truly immerse ourselves in their beauty.

Olsen Gallery
16 October to 10 November 2019
Sydney