Finn O’Hara, Band on the Run at Donna’s

There’s something about having to book a reservation at a restaurant that builds up the anticipation. What makes the space so special that I have to let them know I want to be there? To know that it is so frequented that they may not have space for you. It encourages you to scope it out, take a look at the menu to try and figure out what makes it special. There’s also something similar to viewing art: scoping out exhibitions, seeing which catches your eye, purchasing tickets before they are sold out, and making plans to visit the venue. The planning and the research can build up the excitement, and you can only hope that your expectations are met, or better, exceeded. Thankfully, the latter was the case when visiting Finn O’Hara’s “Band on the Run”, part of the programming of CONTACT Photography Festival 2024, on view at Donna’s. The exhibition playfully explores the process of bird banding and documents the subjects in dynamic poses.

Exhibition view of Finn O’Hara, Band on the Run at Donna’s. Courtesy of the artist.

To ensure I had a chance to view O’Hara’s work at Donna’s I booked a table for two on a Saturday evening since it’s a restaurant, not a gallery. Thankfully we made it on time and immediately upon entering the venue “Band on the Run” is very  visible, spanning the wall above an extended bench. The sun shone in through the bay window adjacent to the wall in which “Band on the Run” is installed. The space near the window holds an abundance of plants, bringing nature into the field of vision with the series of bird portraits at the centre, and Donna’s kitchen to the left. I had entered during a brief ebb in patrons and had time to familiarize myself with the immediate works of CEWA + LULI (2023) and NOCA + ELGR (2023), a Cedar Waxwing and Northern Cardinal, respectively.

Finn O’Hara, CEWA + LULI (2023) and NOCA + ELGR (2023).

Soon the band of birds had an audience and I was in the front row. The subject birds meet  our gaze as we’re the direction they face. Not often are humans the focus of a bird’s serenade. We are just people passing. While the birds are not photographed performing their songs, the photographs do capture their static form. This is more of an album cover than a live session. This is not the case of the early bird gets the worm. Here, the bird gets the cover, it’s a star. The subjects each pose on their own cover, but not necessarily that of National Geographic. The personality of each bird shines through beyond the setting of its natural habitat, through the vivid backgrounds and subtle positioning to emphasize certain features. For example, the tufts of the Cardinal appear as a rock star haircut, reminiscent of punk scenes. Then further along the series is a Blackburnian Warbler in BLBW + ELZO (2023), taking on the reticent energy of Thom Yorke from 90’s Radiohead.

Finn O’Hara, SWSP + MAFU (2023) and BLBW + ELZO (2023).

The series is comprised of 8 photographs, each with a bird as the primary subject held in place by a human hand, the latter varying in position: a pinch, a fist, a grasp accompanied by a stern point. The photographs have been installed in pairs, with a larger gap in space between each set. There is an array of background colour blocks, one for each portrait: neon pink, sea-foam green, tangerine, cobalt, crimson, pear green, canary yellow, and cerulean. The selection of colours is lively and works with the features of the subject. For example, the cadmium yellow tail feathers of the Cedar Waxwing in CEWA + LULI is paired with neon pink in a coordinated effort to attract interest. Meanwhile, the green of NOCA + ELGR forms a subtle contrast to the agape rust beak of the Northern Cardinal. The wooden frames complement the foliage that is consistent in the background of the series, nature being further emphasized by the plants within the space.

Finn O’Hara, SCJU + ELGR (2023) and CMWA + LULI (2023).

Presented with each portrait is a label noting the species of bird, such as CMWA + LULI (2023) with the title formed by Cape May Warbler and their human holder, Lucas Liu. O’Hara uses the first two letters of the species and the individual holding the bird in a combination for a title. The label also states the site, the Long Point Bird Conservatory, Old Cut Research Station in Port Rowan, Ontario. In this disclosure, viewers understand this site of learning is also one of performance. On that note, we understand birds as singers and in turn, as performers— something inherent to the species. The performance aspect can be perceived in their communication for food, travel, danger, mating, and in play. Witnessing the bird in this way prompts patrons to consider our perceptions of birds and how we project the performance aspect onto them, or whether we even consider them as being capable of composing their songs. Is it in their nature? Do we reduce their method of communication to a lesser version than those of humans? Or is it a case of different performers singing different songs?

Finn O’Hara, WAVI + ELZO (2023) and REVI + RODU (2023).

The exhibition also brings up important discussions related to bird banding. What have they learned from the subjects. What does migration look like to them? Where and how do they live? How can we further support their habitat? While O’Hara’s work is playful, it is also critical to consider the conservation component attached to the species depicted and our responsibility as humans to be good neighbours. In this way, O’Hara strikes a careful balance between playful and deliberate. The works featured in “Band on the Run” elevates the biographical-documenting nature inherent to photography and portraiture. O’Hara shifts away from the documentation of species as something sterile though scientific, instead imbuing personality through bright colours, dynamic poses, and titles that present the bird and hand holding it as stars performing together.

Text and photo: Rashana Youtzy

*Exhibition information: Finn O’Hara, Band on the Run, May 1 – 31, 2024, Donna’s, 827 Lansdowne Avenue, Toronto. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 9 am – 10 pm.

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