The images of the Galápagos Islands that we are most familiar with are coffee-table-book-style photographs of the equatorial archipelago's endemic species, including its exotic birdlife and fabled giant tortoises (Lonesome George
being the most famous). The Islands have also become synonymous with Charles Darwin, whose study of its mockingbirds, in a visit in 1835 on the HMS Beagle, contributed to the development of his theories of natural selection.
Paulo Catrica, 'Mfc460/12', 2010. Estacion Terrena,Puerto Baquerizo Moreno:S0 54.618 W89 36.565, 30.10.2010, 5:33:35pm.
But the representations in 'Galápagos',
a new group exhibition at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, cumulatively present a much more complex picture of the archipelago. It emerges as a territory contested between different factions: the indigenous animals themselves, which are under threat from extinction as numbers of tourists, immigrants and invasive species grow; the scientists desperately trying to conserve the wildlife; the tourists travelling to the Pacific for a once-in-a-lifetime look at such rare biodiversity; and the Islands’ 30,000 human inhabitants, most of whom have come from the Ecuadorian mainland, who are attempting to build a life for themselves by cashing in on the burgeoning tourist trade.
Alison Turnbull, 'Nature', 2010. Ink on printed paper.
The twelve international artists on view all visited the Islands for a number of weeks, commissioned by the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to make new work in response to their visit. The range of their responses was particularly notable and helps make the exhibition a rich experience.
Kaffe Matthews, 2009.
Portuguese photographer Paolo Catrica focused on the rough-and-ready architecture built by new immigrants. English artist Alison Turnbull studied the butterflies and moths, representing their colour and characteristics in a beautiful large-scale print. London-based sound artist and musician Kaffe Matthews swam with sharks and then represented their movements in the ocean with a sublime audio work, experience by lying on a ‘sonic bed’ in the middle of a gallery space. The most iconoclastic work is by Jeremy Deller, who filmed a cockfight on his visit in 2010: it is shocking to see animals being forced to fight to the death in a place known for conservation.
Jeremy Deller, 'Cock Fight', 2010. Video still.
- 'Galápagos' is at The Bluecoat, Liverpool
until 1 July 2012. The exhibition will then travel to The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2 Nov 2012 – 13 Jan 2013) and Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon (18 Apr – 7 Jul 2013). An accompanying book, also called Galápagos, is available to buy for £10.99 from www.centralbooks.co.uk.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine