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Birdmen demystified: What were those bird statues on campus?

Earlier this month, students observed mysterious bird-like sculptures strolling around Duke’s campus. What were these strange creatures, and who brought them here?

Duke Arts Opening Week 2023, which took place Sept. 6-10, introduced both new and returning Duke students to the myriad of arts found on campus through a rich variety of exhibitions and shows. Although the return of alumnus Ken Jeong (Trinity '90) to campus was the talk of the town, there were certainly other memorable moments shared by the Duke community throughout the week. Among the many performances hosted by Duke Arts was “Birdmen:” a collection of large, skeletal-looking bird statues resembling prehistoric beasts that paraded around campus. The Birdmen made their Duke debut Sept. 5 at the Duke Arts Block Party outside of the Ruby, visiting campus again Sept. 7–8 at the Duke Chapel and Baldwin Auditorium. They were due to make one last appearance in downtown Durham Sept. 9; however, the event was canceled. 

These peculiar sculptures are the production of Close-Act Theatre, a street theater group from the Netherlands that – in their words – “uses the public as their performance area.”  Established in 1991, Close-Act Theatre is a pioneer in “interactive street theater,” a performance method centered around audience interaction. Rather than restricting their performances to a stage, Close-Act Theatre utilizes public areas where their performers can roam and interact with passersby. Masked performers on stilts operate the Birdmen statues, allowing them to wander amongst the crowd. The Birdmen, which debuted in 2016, are one of Close-Act’s current mobile exhibitions; other ongoing mobile acts by the Close-Act Theatre include “ActRed,” “Black Shapes” and “Blue Birds.”

Many Duke community members initially reacted with confusion to the exhibition’s arrival at Duke. The appearance of the Birdmen was unexpected and mysterious for many students, with seemingly no reason for their presence on campus. 

Trinity sophomore Pranavi Reddi shared her thoughts about the Birdmen: “I saw a Birdman out of the window here at WU and I thought it was really interesting. I was very confused about why they were on campus, like what they were supposed to represent and what they were doing, but I wasn't sure. I'm not gonna lie, but I never found out the context beyond just knowing their existence. I do wonder, was there some meaning for them being here?” 

Several other students took to social media to joke about the unusual appearance of the Birdmen, noting the statues’ resemblance to a grayscale version of Kevin from the Disney-Pixar film “Up!” 

In the “work hard, play hard” environment of Duke, taking a moment to step away from a difficult problem set or lengthy discussion post is critical to students’ well-being. Duke Arts provides not only a space where students can find solace from the daily bustle of classes and clubs, but also a place where students may foster an appreciation for art of all mediums. Perhaps all it takes to make a student’s day and give them the motivation to continue their hard work is witnessing some Birdmen.

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