Center for the Environment

A sculpture seeks to inspire, using a voice nature has lost.

September 5, 2013

Two 8-foot androgynous, red clay heads chirped back and forth to each other Wednesday afternoon in front of Purdue University’s Yue-Kong Pao Hall of Visual and Performing Arts.

If you listen closely, the heads emit sounds of local wetland wildlife — from the chirping of cardinals to the landing of geese and the buzzing of insects — and the call of the critically endangered and possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

The structures, together called "Brickhead Conversations" and designed by sculptor artist James Tyler, are supposed to “explore the nature of being human on the planet.” The “conversation” is a 24-hour chronology of sounds from a week in May 2008 recorded by a Purdue professor.

“These pieces are, in my mind, a reflection on contemporary society, and for us to think a little bit about where we’ve been and where we’re going and the impact we’re having on the world,” Tyler said.

The heads are not intended to be portraiture or realism, Tyler said, but instead depict all human races and genders collectively.

The Purdue community dedicated the sculptures Wednesday at an outdoor ceremony. The audience participated in a moment of silence to take in the soft sounds.

Funded by the Florence H. Lonsford Endowment, the goal of the pieces, which were installed in July, is to make people think about the disappearance of natural sounds and species in daily life and what can be done about it, Tyler said.

“In my mind, these sounds could have been heard right where we’re sitting 1,000 years ago, 50,000 years ago … and depending on what we all do, maybe they’ll be heard 1,000 years from now again, right on this spot,” Tyler said. “I just find that an infinitely curious and rewarding question to ask.”

The conversation of the ivory-billed woodpeckers taking place between the two sculptures — evoked when people walk by and interact with the art — is designed to stir up that question.

“The underlying message ... is what do we think about the fact that that voice is no longer heard in nature, and are we going to do things better or worse as we move forward?” Tyler said.

The sculptures’ local sound comes largely from Bryan Pijanowski, a professor of forestry and natural resources and a sound ecologist. Pijanowski wanted to participate in the project because he is disturbed about how few natural sounds humans encounter nowadays.

Pijanowski, whose work involves capturing the “acoustic signature” of nature, is happy to share his work with the public through art.

“As a scientist, I feel as though we need to inform,” Pijanowski said, “but we need to partner with the artistic community to inspire.”

Click here for video and more pictures.

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The Gerald D. and Edna E. Mann Hall, home to the Center for the Environment's administrative offices.