March 29, 2011

The Winking Owl

Ancient Greek Urn with Owl image

Owls have always fascinated me. But I have never seen a life owl sitting on a branch any where ....may be I am not such a night bird myself after all. But the topic of owls in literature and social history has be touched on so often by writers that I would like to discuss it too here today.....

The modern West generally associates owls with wisdom. And as usual we find ourselves reading about the Western world's owls right up to references from Ancient Greece. Athens' patron goddess and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol.

The English Professional football club known as Sheffield Wednesday F.C. are nicknamed the Owls having an Owl on their club Badge and a mascot known as Ozzie the Owl.

Owls were considered funerary birds among the Romans.

Many urban centres in Sarawak are full of rats and I wonder if this bird has been studied as a potential solution to a long aged problem! Since the owl os a natural predator to control rodent population is a natural form of pest control, along with excluding food sources for rodents. Placing a new box for owls on a property can help control rodent populations (one family of hungry barn owls can consume more than 3,000 rodents in a nesting season) while maintaining the naturally balanced food chain.

But insteading of using the owl as a form of pest control some interesting stories about the owl have emerged. Malaysia has reported some interesting stories about owl meat eating. Athough owls have long been hunted, a 2008 news story  indicates that the magnitude of owl poaching may be on the rise. In November 2008, TRAFFIC reported the seizure of 900 plucked and "oven-ready" owls in Peninsular Malaysia. Said Chris Shepherd, Senior Programme Officer for TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia office, "This is the first time we know of where 'ready-prepared' owls have been seized in Malaysia, and it may mark the start of a new trend in wild meat from the region. We will be monitoring developments closely." Traffic commended the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Malaysia for the raid that exposed the huge haul of owls. Included in the seizure were dead and plucked Barn Owls, Spotted Wood Owls, Crested Serpent Eagles, Barred Eagles, and Brown Wood Owls, as well as 7,000 live lizards.

Well that is the situation in Malaysia.

In China an interesting story about The Winking Owl created some social dissatisfaction some years ago.

Spring 2000
Volume 26, Number 3

Excerpt from
The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description
by Eugene Y. Wang

Can a painting such as the one shown here (fig. 1) say anything at all? In Western academic settings questions like this either appear to be worn-out commonplaces that induce yawns or are suspected to be quibbles, equivocation and play on the different senses of the word say. In a different institutional universe, however, these same questions may carry frightening implications. In March 1974 a group of painters in China, specializing mostly in traditional ink painting, were charged by the Ministry of Culture with blaspheming "the Socialist system"--meaning the state.1 Their paintings were put on public display in China's National Art Gallery in Beijing, as the so-called Black Painting Exhibition. The organizers' captions constituted a de facto indictment of the artists' subversive political intent. Among the paintings showcased, the centerpiece was Huang Yongyu's Owl (fig. 1),2 which shows a squat owl perched on a sparsely budded tree branch, facing the viewer head on, with an enigmatic expression that can be seen either as a wink or as a one-eye-open stare. Its exhibition caption read: "Huang Yongyu produced this Owl in 1973. The owl, with its one eye open and the other closed, is a self-portrait of the likes of Huang. It reveals their attitude: an animosity toward the Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Socialist system" ("PH," p. 27). A grueling chastisement followed the Ministry of Culture's categorical pronouncement. Reprimand sessions ran for months in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, where Huang was a professor of woodblock printing, to coerce the painter into confessing his antisocialist stance.3
[...] It is easier to settle the political scores than the art historical accounts, and it is easier to exonerate the artist than the painting. There is a consensus now that the painter was a victim more sinned against than sinning, that he became an innocent pawn in a game of high-level power politics, and that the inquisition to which the painter and his painting were subjected made a travesty of art criticism. It is not clear, however, how innocent the painting was. Does the painting contain the message it was charged with?
[...] The owl's wink itself seems to reinforce the impression that the bird's enigmatic expression indeed contains an encoded message. For "to wink," according to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, "is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code."11 The overwhelming central frontality of the owl, which claims the viewer's attention, makes explicit the painting's impulse to communicate with the viewer. Believing that the painting was wrongly charged with conveying a message it did not contain, one is likely to go about showing that it in fact means something, but not the kind of meaning that was unfairly imputed to it. This is an occasion for some radical alternative thinking. The enduring assumption that a painting is a deposit of meaning not only got this particular artist into trouble, it has also led art historians into a methodological morass. Wouldn't it be better for us to drop altogether the notion that a painting as such has an intrinsic message or cognitive content?

Eugene Y. Wang is assistant professor of art history at Harvard University. He is the author of several articles on medieval Chinese art and modern Chinese visual culture and has translated Roland Barthes's Fragments d'un discours amoureux into Chinese.

Actually owls do wink....I will leave the topic here....


Anonymous said...

Owl has been used in Msian oil palm plantation as biological control.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Anonymous...Good to hear that.

Ann said...

owls were harbingers of death. only silly people eat them. Then they Mati. explanation. Modern days, farmers use rat poison to kill rats, owls pick up poison rats, the poisons cumulate in the body.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Ann
Owls might one day be all poisoned along with the rats...May be it is good I have never seen them around Miri....

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