Leila Jeffreys

In her first Australian solo exhibition in five years, 'High Society', Leila Jeffreys explores new territory. Releasing over 300 budgerigars into her studio, Jeffreys has documented this 'society' through still photography and video art.

Jeffreys’ gentle images don’t immediately communicate the patience and skill required to execute them, from considering and setting up the compositional elements to post-production labour. The artist spends hours in the studio with her flock of budgerigars, waiting for the perfect moment to capture them. The exhibition ‘began when I noticed how a flock of native Australian budgerigars look like leaves on a tree’, comments Jeffreys. ‘Looking closer I saw individuals, couples, families – a secret High Society.’ Her intuitive approach means that she is able to encapsulate the nuanced personalities of the birds, the close-up studio shots mirroring the conventions of portrait photography to humanise the birds. With a somewhat regal air, the anthropomorphised birds peer through the camera’s lens as if striking a pose, the picturesque pastels of their feathers like elaborate costumes.

The other half of the exhibition consists of photographs of trees in the studio adorned with monochromatic birds, establishing parallels between the flock and human community. Drawing on remarkable similarities in behaviour and body language between people and birds, the works position us to see the concept of community as a shared experience between human civilisation and the animal kingdom. These works also make an impact solely because of the improbability of their occurrence; the sheer patience of waiting for them to land on the tree at the same time. Jeffreys separates these creatures from their natural contexts and transplants them into an environment of her creation, drawing on the domestic connotations of a budgerigar – a classic Australian pet – to blurring the edges of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’.

‘There exists a symbiotic relationship between birds and trees,’ said Jeffreys. ‘Their survival depends on each other. We depend on them. ‘High Society’ serves as a visual reminder to leave wild places for these other societies to enjoy, as well as our own.’

Jeffreys began documenting birds by way of photographic portraiture in 2008, working alongside conservationists, ornithologists and bird sanctuaries. Her practice has expanded in the decade since to include video pieces, and this exhibition signifies a substantial progression with her exploration of flocks of birds as well as individual portraits. In 2019, Jeffreys undertook an expedition to the Arctic Circle at the invitation of British historian and explorer Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, and whilst there was able to experience one of the most untouched yet vulnerable parts of the world. This trip allowed her to observe wildlife in its natural habitat, and fuelled both her creativity and her sense of urgency to protect it. Themes of environmentalism and conservation are tacitly present in ‘High Society’; the static images of flawless birds appear almost like a taxidermy show, or an educational display of wildlife lost.

Jeffreys is interested in bringing to attention elements usually overlooked; whether it be the details of a budgie’s feathers or the behavioural patterns of a flock, gently asking the audience to consider them with the patience she exemplifies. ‘High Society’ is a thoughtful exhibition that prompts reflections on our relationship with these species, the environment and each other.

Leila Jeffreys: High Society
16 Oct – 9 Nov 2019
Olsen Gallery, Sydney

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