Artists Focus on Culture in the Galápagos

Artists Focus on Culture in the Galápagos

Activism May 08, 2012 / By Mark Sheerin
Artists Focus on Culture in the Galápagos

Humans are the species which attract most interest in a group show about the Galápagos at the Bluecoat, Liverpool

It so happens that the most wild place on earth is also the most photographed and scrutinized. Far from the coast of Ecuador sit the Galápagos Islands. They are 97% National Park. But the remaining 3% is perhaps of more immediate concern. 30,000 people already live on these islands and 200,000 visit every year, with reports of South Americans taking weekend breaks there and even sending stag parties.

This poses conservationists with a challenge. Immense interest in the islands may help with funding applications, but planeloads of tourists are not a recipe for ecological balance. And nowhere is this more true than an archipelago where all supplies, including drinking water, need bringing in by boat.

This was all news to me, so a new show at the Bluecoat gallery in Liverpool, England, is to some extent working. It pulls together the work of a dozen European artists who did residencies on the islands. And despite a proliferation of picturesque flora and fauna, half of them turned their attention to the more cultural, rather than natural, side of life.

Work includes Jyll Bradley’s photos of lost-looking tourists, Paulo Catrica‘s shots of local architecture, Alexis Deacon’s child-friendly illustrations of conquistadors, Marcus Coates’ spoof news report by a blue-footed booby and Filipa César‘s exploration of the island‘s cold war history. It all reminds us that conservation was not always on the agenda, and some of the first people to consider settlement on the Islands were politically incorrect whalers.

Perhaps the work that sits most at odds with a cinematic wildlife documentary is Jeremy Deller’s ten-minute film about cockfighting. It is one thing to show predator and prey in HD, quite another to dwell on the local ritual in which men fix spurs on birds and set them on one another. Given the beauty on all sides, Deller is realistic to choose the word blasphemy to describe the witnessing of this blood sport.

At the end of the bout, two of the owners square up to one another and an altercation gets underway. It is a sorry representation of human nature, but not without humour. Cock fighting was banned last year, but the passions which give rise to rivalry and combat are still very much with us. One wonders if these two are performing for the camera, in which case even gallery goers from Liverpool will be implicated in this scene.

But of all the places to find a fight between two birds and then between two men, the Galápagos would appear to be the most resonant. It was only after visiting these islands that Charles Darwin was able to develop his ideas about evolution and survival of the fittest. Deller’s film also calls to mind the words of Victorian poet Tennyson who spoke of nature “red in tooth and claw.” It is only in recent decades that human evolution has led to the protection of species by law. Artists are not legislators, but they can influence legislators and public alike.

And it may be argued that a dozen resident artists will have more impact than an equal number of nature documentaries. Those are surely an opium for our age, as if for as long as rare species appear on screen, all is right with the world. What comes across in the current show is an alternative view; it is mankind we should keep an eye on, not the creatures of the wild.

The residency programme ran for five years and was set up by the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Foundation, working in conjunction with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Feature Image: Tourists appear lost in Jyll Bradley's photos of the islands.

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