Artist and Bird Rehabilitator Protests “Animal Cruelty” at LA Gallery

Some images below depict birds injured as a result of being released into environments to which they are ill-suited to survive.

Sheida Soleimani, “Coping Mechanisms 4” (2021), from a series of images shot in the course of her practice as a wildlife and bird rehabber. Soleimani is protesting the release of domestic doves into the wild during a show opening at Dietch Los Angeles. (All images courtesy of Sheida Soleimani and Denny Dimin Gallery)

The ethical conundrum of using live animals as art materials is not a new issue in the art world — a place where aesthetics are considered a cause worth dying (and killing) for. But this week, fine art photographer and trained bird and wildlife rehabber Sheida Soleimani voiced objections to an opening event at Jeffrey Deitch Los Angeles, which incorporated the release of live birds.

The occasion, in this case, was the opening night event of The Emerald Tablet, a solo exhibition by Ariana Papademetropolous, on September 4. The show purports to “celebrate the intersection of the occult and the magic of set design, blurring the world of cinema and the great beyond.” Thirty-three domestic doves are likely to soon encounter the great beyond, says Soleimani, after being shoved inside a fiberglass spaceship sculpture mounted to the top of a car in the LA heat, before being released into the wild where they are ill-suited to survive, the artist adds — all under the auspices of a performance art piece by the Unarius Educational Foundation.

“Unarius utilizes celebratory occasions to share this positive message with our fellow brothers and sisters,” said Unarius, an “Academy of Science” founded in 1954 by “Cosmic Visionaries” Ernest L. and Ruth E. Norman to “provide a higher spiritual understanding of life for the betterment of humankind,” according to the organization’s website, in a statement provided to Hyperallergic. “The doves have played an integral part on these occasions by giving viewers a ray of hope, joy, and excitement, lifting them out of their mundane state of mind to have the realization of what can be. This has been proven out with the cheering, whistles, and tears of joy expressed by thousands of people who have viewed the dove release ceremony for decades now, both in person and via media.”

However, a witness account of the event notes a different set of reactions.

“All the people near me when this was happening were watching it with a slack-jawed sense of horror, wondering aloud if the doves would be cooked by the aluminum UFO they were housed in,” said an attendee of the gallery opening who wished to remain anonymous, in a message to Soleimani acquired by Hyperallergic. “It was like 90+ degrees out and the car was in the sun.”

“While many people think that the release of doves is a symbol of peace, domestic doves are unable to survive in the wild, and will rapidly grow emaciated, get killed by predators, and die, unless they are rescued, rehabilitated, and placed with a caretaker in captivity,” said Soleimani, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “In other words, this is an unmistakable act of animal cruelty, there for the world to see. I was shocked at the open willingness of both Papademetropoulos as well as Deitch to release of these birds as an act of spectacle.”

Hyperallergic reached out to Deitch Los Angeles and a representative for Papademetropolous; the gallery said the dove release was “not organized by the gallery or Ariana.”

“The Unariuns organized the dove release in honor of Ariana Papademetropoulos and the opening of The Emerald Tablet,” said a Deitch representative. The gallery also passed along an additional statement prepared by Unarius, saying “The doves are actually homing pigeons and are not harmed in any way.”

“The spaceship on top of the car is made of fiberglass and wood, so it does not heat up like a metal ship would, and it is well vented for air circulation,” Unarius added. “As an additional safeguard, the doves are not loaded into the spaceship until just a few minutes before their release.” Unarius also notes that they rented the doves from a reputable minority small business owner.

“[He] takes good care of them, as their well-being ensures his dove release business will continue to be a reliable source of income for his family,” Unarius added. “After their release, the doves circle above a few times before flying back to their caring home. Would they return to their home if they were being abused? — we believe they would not.”

A Ring-Necked Dove, brought to Soleimani for rehabilitation after being injured by a cat following release into the wild. Dove releases are sometimes a part of wedding ceremonies, and pose life-threatening danger to the doves, which are domestic creatures.A lost domestic pigeon, brought to Soleimani for rehabilitation. “Often times these domestic guys end up hungry and emaciated,” she said. “And once seeing him downed, someone decided to throw him some slices of white bread. This stuff is horrible for birds. Empty foods like bread long term cause emaciation and the fact they have no vitamin/mineral content causes lots of other metabolic issues. This guy had ‘crop stasis’ which means his whole crop, filled with white bread, had gone sour and was unable to digest anything.” After spending an hour manually emptying his crop, Soleimani had to administer antibiotics, pain meds, and fluids.

But Soleimani, who ends up receiving lost and dying homing pigeons, disagrees. “[The art world] is all about aesthetics,” said Soleimani. “But when I hold their dying bodies and their emaciated frames it isn’t beautiful.”

Best case scenario, these birds will find their way to a dedicated rehabber like Soleimani, who has rehabilitated and released some 500 avian patients during pandemic times. Soleimani has photographed some of her rehab birds for a series of photographs that ran in the New York Times, and will soon debut in a virtual solo show later this month with Denny Dimin Gallery in New York — but stresses that there are safe and ethical ways to work with live animals if one desires to make them a part of an art practice.

“I am super aware of how they stress, if I photograph them, and in what setting,” she said. “I refuse to use flash with the birds because it spooks them. If I had to choose a photo over a bird, I never would.”  The Audubon Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography also suggests use of telephoto lenses or blinds (but not drones) and careful maintenance of habitats when shooting images of birds in the wild. Obviously, it is not ethical or kind to put doves in a hot fiberglass container and then release them to fend for themselves in hostile environments.

Soleimani says she was blocked on social media by Papademetropolous after making a direct appeal, and that the artist has also removed any critical comments about animal treatment from her Instagram posts about the opening.

“It is not lost on me that a well-connected and extremely privileged artist who makes escapist surrealist work for the ultra-rich is the one who is committing this act,” said Soleimani. “As both an artist, and federally licensed bird rehabilitator, I feel that it is important to hold these individuals accountable, while also disabusing the public of any false notions about releasing doves as well as using living creatures in art works.”

Sheida Soleimani, “Coping Mechanisms 5” (2021)

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