Jocelyn Saidenberg, “ELEMENO”

Jocelyn Saidenberg, from the series ELEMENO, photograph, 2021.

Owls are hunters, swallowing their prey—small rodents, birds, and other animals—whole. They digest what they can, and what they cannot—the bones, fur, and feathers—their body compacts into a firm pellet, which the owl regurgitates. Typically they do this once a day, and often from their roost, so one might find a small cache of these owl pellets beneath the owl’s tree or perch. 

While an Artist in Residence in the summer of 2021, Jocelyn Saidenberg began collecting owl pellets she found near our campus houses and studios. Often collected and disassembled by researchers for a glimpse into the owl’s diets, health, and habitat, for Saidenberg the pellets  become something else: a language, or an alphabet. All alphabets and languages function as abstractions: symbols and sounds derived from and representing some other thing in the world.

Jocelyn Saidenberg, from the series ELEMENO, photograph, 2021.


In her work, Saidenberg manipulates language as a physical, malleable material. She says: “I apprentice myself to texts that work with alternative alphabets and illegible writing in order to create poetic compositions, at times by borrowing resources from visual forms.” In her current project, Shadow Index—of which the photo series ELEMENO is a part—Saidenberg is working in a family of forms, or what she refers to as ”hybrid genres open to the strangeness of language.” “The project,” she says, “circumnavigates multiple paths to pursue my ongoing interest in the materiality of language and forms of knowledge that resist representation and recuperation for signification.” 

Like the owl, artists, writers, researchers, and all of us, consume: we swallow the work and ideas of others, we digest it and sit with it, and with time we expel it, transformed, as new work and new ideas. The creative process is at its core a cycle of transformation, as past work and experiences feed the new, which in turn feed future cycles. In Saidenberg’s series ELEMENO that metaphor is literalized: the owl pellet becomes a story, and as she picks that story-object apart, separates it into its component parts, we see the written language that gives it its form: swoops and dashes, angles and dots, lives entangled with other lives in a cycle of exchange and alchemy.

Small boenes arranged as if calligraphy

Jocelyn Saidenberg, from the series ELEMENO, photograph, 2021.