Galapagos – Fruitmarket Gallery

Fruitmarket Gallery is hosting an exciting exhibition with guest curators, twelve International artists, and a trip to the Galápagos.

Cities, landscapes, islands, are all built on stories, collective narratives that name places that tie populace and land together. But the Galápagos Islands have only one story, and it comes from outside; it is Darwin’s story. This is what twelve artists noticed when they visited the Galápagos as part of residency programme between 2007 and 2011, producing work during and after their trips.

Many of the artists seem to have an interesting relationship with visiting the islands – in a recent panel discussion at the exhibition Alison Turnbull asked,

What does it mean to send artists to the Galápagos in the twenty-first century?

Perhaps, she proposed, it was to shock them into an awareness of the fragility of eco-systems, or perhaps it was in the hope of producing imagery that could trumpet the call of conservationists in the same way that new images of the earth from Space had done so in the 1960s and 70s. At any rate, it is an odd kind of modern-day pilgrimage, in which the site of Charles Darwin’s study becomes the equivalent of a holy destination.

Turnbull’s output had to do with the butterfly population on the islands, though rather than focusing on the aesthetic of the butterflies, she honed in on their categorisation. Returning from her trip she went to look at the Natural History Museum’s collection of butterfly specimens from the Galápagos, and discovered that colonialism spread its tentacles even into the labelling of species, though now the Victorian sounding names of many butterflies have been given a Spanish or Portuguese replacement. Turnbull’s paintings appear like colour-swatches, mapping the names of each butterfly species with a patch of colour.

Tania Kovats’ contribution to the exhibition includes two works: an extraordinary sculpture built out of inverted barnacles, and a taxidermied road-kill badger. At first glance neither seem to have anything much to do with the Galápagos, but Kovats has intriguing explanations for both.

Darwin studied barnacles for a long period while consolidating his ideas in The Origin of Species before publishing. He was able to do so at home, inviting people to send him barnacles from round the world. But Kovats decided to study barnacles in-situ on the Galápagos, fascinated by their liminal status, between rock and animal. They seemed sculptural in themselves, and this was the root of Kovat’s barnacle sculpture, Colony (2012). The thing seems as if it has just been plucked from nature, like an engorged wasps’ nest or anthill, as if creatures are about to crawl from it.

During her visit to the Galápagos Kovats was also struck by the intimacy with nature that one feels. Since the animals have not learnt to fear humans, they do not run away, and life and death takes place in front of your eyes. The only equivalency in the UK that Kovats could think of was road-kill, as one of the only times that we come face to face with a dead animal. The artist wanted to recreate such an encounter in the gallery, and so her badger is not stuffed as if alive, but as if dead – just killed, lying by a door frame at risk of being kicked by unwary visitors.

Marcus Coates was struck more by the human population than the animal. The Galapagos Islands have a young population; children and their parents, and not an old person in sight. This is because there is no indigenous population, and all the inhabitants have moved in from Ecuador relatively recently. Humans therefore seem alien, only inhabiting 4 of the 120 islands, and since they arrived so recently the construction of culture seems so transparent.

Coates’ tongue-in-cheek work, Human Report (2008), involves him dressing up as a blue-footed booby and creating a report for the local television station by interviewing people around town. Just as animals have been studied on the Galápagos, Coates acts as an animal studying the humans, reporting on their markings and behaviour. Through these absurd means Coates highlights inequalities and injustices inherent in the community. Jeremy Deller’s work too focuses on the intersection between human and animal, recording a cockfight in a local town.

Upstairs most of the space is taken up with an installation by the artist duo Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), which has a sublime element about it, revelling in the power of nature and our insignificance in the face of earthquakes, volcanoes and destructive weather systems. Projected onto three screens are views of the islands, with a rumbling soundtrack that imitates the tremors caused by volcanoes.

Since the exhibition is guest curated (by Bergit Arends and Greg Hilty), it has a freshness about it and a slight break from usual ‘Fruitmarket form’, with such a diversity of work providing unexpected spaces and experiences. When the Galápagos are really only known for one thing, this exhibition helps to refute such stereotypes, both highlighting and creating new narratives for the islands.

Other artists included in the exhibition are Dorothy Cross, Jyll Bradley, Paulo Catrica, Filipa César, Kaffe Matthews and Alexis Deacon.

Alison Turnbull, Specimens (detail), 2012, Courtesy of the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London
Tania Kovats, Badger (roadkill), 2011
Marcus Coates, Human Report, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London and Workplace Gallery, UK
Jeremy Deller, Cockfight, 2010, Video Still

-Ruth Burgon

Galápagos is showing from 2nd November 2012 – 13th January 2012 at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh