Forgotten Songs

Artist: Michael Hill
Location: Angel Place, Sydney, Australia
Year of completion: 2011
Kelly Carmichael

In a time of extreme art, when large scale, colorful and interactive public art works are popular and often loudly demand our attention, work that speaks in a soft voiceis not common. Forgotten Songs by Australian artist and architect Michael Hill represents a subtle and thoughtful approach to placemaking. This work is a permanent public art installation in Sydney, Australia. A small lane off the central business district houses the installation, comprised of 180 birdcages emitting a soft soundscape of birdsong. This is a delicate, beautiful work where a curious variety of shapes and sizes of birdcages are hung high in the narrow alleyway. The transparency of the wire cages is ghostly and oddly intriguing, but what is remarkable is the sound element.

Forgotten Songs plays the calls of fifty birds that once lived in what is now inner city Sydney before the arrival of Europeans to Australia in the late 1700s brought colonization and the beginnings of urbanization to the area. The calls filter down from the canopy of birdcages, changing from day to night with daytime birds' songs disappearing with the setting sun and nocturnal birds which inhabited the area sounding late into the evening. It is truly magical to stand in the lane and listen to birdsongs echoing off the walls, songs from a previous time, just meters away from one of Sydney’s busiest commercial and shopping districts.

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Forgotten Songs is a public artwork that exists on the border of political and sustainable art, skillfully demonstrating some of the best characteristics of both. Contrary to many artworks in this vein, Hill takes a nuanced approach, exploring a contradictory dynamic which entangles the desire for preservation and progress with the often painful history of colonization. The artist desired the work to show “that changes to the environment alter many unseen aspects of life . . . We have highlighted the changes to the acoustic environment—the sound of the city—through the loss of native bushland." Forgotten Songs is a response to widespread concerns regarding urbanization, diminishing natural environments and the threat of habitat loss for native wildlife. It prompts the examination of important issues without being obviously environmentally sustainable in its execution.

The work was carefully researched for accuracy. Artist Michael Hill worked with Dr. Richard Major, a scientist from the Australia Museum, who identified vegetation and therefore probable bird species via local soils. One of Major's colleagues, wildlife field recorder Fred van Geseell, had recorded the birdsongs of all these species and provided the sound files for this project. At present there are 129 species of birds native to the state of New South Wales, formally listed as extinct or threatened with extinction. The birdcalls Forgotten Songs returns to Angel Lane are amongst these species known to be from the area before European settlement gradually forced them away.

Forgotten Songs was commissioned as part of a 2009 temporary laneway art program. The work was hugely popular with Sydneysiders and visitors alike, transforming Angel Place and making the narrow lane a destination. When the temporary work was uninstalled, public outcry ensued. The people of Sydney spoke—they wanted their much-loved artwork back in the lane and the important issues it evokes back on the table. Due to the work’s success, the City of Sydney's Public Art Advisory Panel recommended to the Council in March 2010 that the City should make the work permanent and incorporate it into the upgrade of Angel Place. The work is now back by popular demand. As a final touch, the names of the birds that once populated the area are now engraved on the paved stones beneath the cages.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency