I first became interested in Martha the passenger pigeon when I was asked to direct a video for a song about her. The song (written by Michael Friedman) is part of The Great Immensity, a play (written by Steve Cosson) about climate change. I am here in Kansas City for the opening week of the play.
[Martha, dir. Alix Lambert, 2012]
Martha’s story is a sad one: the last of her species; she died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body was donated to the Smithsonian. Below her preserved corpse is the following text:
Last of her species, died at 1pm,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.
I’ve always been interested in death. I like walking through cemeteries, looking at gravestones, imagining the lives of all the people just below the surface. In Key West there is a gravestone that reads: I told you I was sick.
With the entertainment industry saturated, as it is, by apocalypse stories, I am clearly not the only person thinking about extinction. What if you were the very last one left? Poor Martha. The finality of that word: EXTINCT, written in all capital letters.
I’ve been making drawings and prints and other Martha-inspired works of art, as I imagine her both alive and dead. I’ve been thinking as I make them, about her final days.
I imagine that we all think about our own personal extinction.
How it will be.
When it will be.
Who will be with us.
We carry these thoughts with us even as we ignore them, going about our day, eating our omelets, living our lives. Then it happens to someone else, a friend, a grandparent, a stranger in the news, and we are confronted with it again.
Thinking about the extinction of a species is like thinking about our own singular death writ large and spread over the topography of our world. An entire species came down to just Martha, alone in captivity, and then gone. Just like that. And then you are back to your day. Your regular day, in which remembering to buy dental floss trumps the bigger questions of existence.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about this morning in my hotel room in Kansas City, watching, You Don’t Know Jack (the story of Jack Kevorkian), a film about a man who dared to ask the question: What, exactly, constitutes a life?
Read more from artist-in-residence Alix Lambert on HiLobrow.
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