Why I won't go to the Galápagos 


It is a place where people and animals are thrown together… and trying to maintain a balance between all those different interests is a daunting task. I don't pretend to know how such a balance might be achieved. All I would hope for is to show a little of the wonder that I felt at what I found.
Alexis Deacon (artist, visited 2009)

 

Over centuries artists the world over have created a rich canon of imagery that denotes our complex relationship to nature and our knowledge of the world. Landscapes, animals and plants have been transformed into symbols and metaphors. More recently - and following developments in knowledge of the natural sciences - artists have presented the natural world as a system of dependencies, an ecosystem of which we are an integral part. Such works, for example Hans Haacke's recycling installation Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972), demonstrate the fragility of these interrelationships by creating simplified systems. Mostly these conceptual works have been motivated by concerns about pollution, species extinction, the use of limited resources and, more recently, climate change and the crisis of biodiversity. By giving the viewer a simplification of nature's complexities their authors and makers question our social and moral responsibilities towards our environment. 

 

In the past decade there have been new collaborations and networks of artists wishing to engage with all aspects of environmental science in order to address the increasingly urgent questions that dominate the world's cultural, political and economical agendas. UK-based arts initiatives include Cape Farewell, established in 2001, which brings together leading artists, writers, scientists and educators to engage audiences with the social and environmental challenges of climate change; Tipping Point, established in 2005 to encourage artists and scientists to collaborate in the making of creative work about climate change; and Julie's Bicycle, established in 2007, which works with the arts and creative industries to make environmental sustainability a core component of their activities. There have been some inspiring interactive discussions and also some exhibitions, although the group show 'Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009', presented at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 2009, demonstrated that this was not a new phenomenon, tracing as it did artists' engagement with nature and environmental questions from the 1960s to the present day. Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Agnes Denes and Robert Smithson, and architects such as Buckminster Fuller, were all passionate and concerned about the state of the natural world and the need for more responsible approaches. Publications such as Land, Art and similar outputs in the media of theatre, literature, poetry and music have critically reflected on an existence that is at a danger point.1 

 

Before their habitation by humans in the 19th century, the Galápagos Islands were frequented over the previous three centuries only by buccaneers, whalers or explorers making brief stopovers. Charles Darwin described the Galápagos as 'a little world within itself'2 while Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, commented on the forlornness of the archipelago: 'Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.'3 Darwin also remarked on the volcanic chimneys that had grown cold and compared these with the waste tips from the hot iron foundries of Staffordshire in Britain, 'which gave the country a workshop appearance'.4 

 

As if to draw on Darwin's analogy, the opportunity given to the artists on the Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme enabled them to use the archipelago like a workshop in which to observe, research and reflect on the environmental and cultural state of the Islands and to trace their recent history. Which objects or experiences would serve as a moral or poetic compass to inform their many different approaches?

 

For the artists the Islands served as a foil for an Elysian dream in which we are one with nature. The archipelago's true inhabitants, its endemic birds, reptiles, butterflies, sea-lions or sharks, became a focus for the artists to redefine human-animal relations. There is delight in the artists' works about their extraordinary closeness to, and even harmony with, the Galápagos' creatures, to which the artists lend a sense of comedy and poetry. This experience of wonder and beauty is breathtaking, but a sense of tragedy also pervades some of the works. 

 

Today cruise ships and aeroplanes facilitate a speedy visit to the Islands. With access becoming easier, the population of the Galápagos has grown rapidly from the 200 to 300 inhabitants in the 19th century to 1,346 in the 1950s to about 30,000 people in 2010. Tourist boat cruises, albeit restricted to capacity limits by the Galápagos National Park that was created in 1969, have made tourism the most important driver of the Galápagos economy, with a massive increase from about 12,000 visiting in 19795 to over 170,000 in 2010. In 2012 measures were implemented to spread the impact of tourism more evenly across the archipelago. Despite being part of the residency programme the artists were also tourists on these islands, even if a different type of tourist.


Tourism is reliant on travel, and today most of our transport relies on fossil fuels for road and air travel. One return journey to the Galápagos emits an enormous four tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person. Such emissions, including the growing proportion that originates from personal travel, lie at the heart of global warming. To put this into a sober perspective: in the UK on average each person uses 12 tonnes of CO2 per year on personal activities and travel. The current national target to avoid the climate changing by two degrees centigrade (a steeper warming and the effects would be disastrous) is around two tonnes per year, per person. The underlying point is clear: we need to radically adjust our lifestyles - including how and how much we travel - if we are to have any significant chance of becoming a sustainable society.6 

 

Human activities are inducing changes at an accelerating scale, not just in the Galápagos but across the globe. Growing populations - with a world population of currently just over seven billion - alongside the inequitable use of resources between rich and poor nations is resulting in the conversion of natural ecosystems for human use at an unprecedented scale. Our voracious demand for resources and the consequent pollution produced is at such a large scale that many scientists now advocate that these last few decades should be recognised as geologically distinct. They have begun calling the present time the anthropocene, because it is people who are now the predominant force shaping the future of the biosphere upon which all life depends. 

 

Why, then, couldn't we just stay nearer and travel further? Couldn't we, as writer Alain de Botton so aptly says, 'try, before taking off to distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen'?7

 

The visit of artist Dorothy Cross was actually her second to the Islands, some 13 years after her first, and she was this time accompanied by her friend, the actor and director Fiona Shaw. Struggling with a justification for their presence in the Galápagos, their dominant question was 'why did we come here?' They were dejected by the detrimental effects of human visits to the Islands, yet felt their own isolation, stranded on a black basalt beach. At the Charles Darwin Research Station they were astonished to discover a storeroom full of whale bones. It was a magical yet saddening encounter with the remnants of those majestic creatures which had literally lit up the 19th century, the oil from whales having been a common fuel for oil lamps. One of Cross' videos shows a mockingbird trapped in her sparse accommodation, while another captures iguanas visiting their veranda. While animals and artists in turn trespass into their respective territories there's no escaping the fact that the artists don't belong.

 

Inhabitants, tourists and visiting scientists and artists alike continually express the marvel of seeming to be regarded by the native creatures as a friend, not as a predator. The 'normal' animal instinct to flee from humans seems not to have befallen the Galápagos' species. The aberrations of human-animal relationships became the subject of works by Marcus Coates and Jeremy Deller. Coates takes on a comical persona as a giant anthropomorphised bird in order to draw out the cultural and behavioural codes and signals in human-animal encounters. Deller counterpoints the trusting Galápagos creatures with two cockerels equipped for deathly combat for the gain of human profiteers.

The smell of the air and the sea, the colours and textures of the landscape, and the sounds of the Islands were also remarked on by the artists ('the chief sound of life here is a hiss', as Melville wrote). These visceral and unique experiences have found their way into the artists' imaginings and percolate into their works. They have attempted to tread lightly, to be gentle and attentive to what they found. Sound artist Kaffe Matthews swam with hammerhead sharks. Author and illustrator Alexis Deacon rejected the use of the omnipresent camera and depicted what he saw with paper and pencil - a slow process. 

'To notice what we have already seen' precipitated a refamiliarisation with the very home environment the artists had temporarily left behind. This is particularly obvious in the works of Tania Kovats and Alison Turnbull who on their return became more attuned to their individual locale, their research questions remaining open and vibrant. Their newly found methodology and enquiry was transferred for Kovats to Devon and for Turnbull to London and the Isle of Canna in Scotland. After her visit Turnbull continued with her research on Galápagos butterflies in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London, and also focused on the idiosyncratic collection of Scottish naturalist John Lorne Campbell on Canna; thereby she created two works inspired by islands, one from the equatorial Pacific, one from the northern British Isles. The collision between nature and man so apparent on the Galápagos is openly referred to in Kovats' subsequent work Badger (roadkill) (2011). On the Galápagos invasive species such as goats are systematically removed because of their detrimental effect on the Islands' ecosystem. In the UK the badger, a native species, is threatened with large-scale culls, in a much-debated response to their supposed role in the epidemiology of bovine tuberculosis, which has led to emotionally and politically charged debates. Managing ecosystems, whether in Galápagos or the UK, can be ugly and difficult. Multiple dilemmas arise about what is being managed and for whose benefit.

 

By way of contrast, the reverse process took place in Jyll Bradley's work. Her ongoing research into botanical collections and gardens in the UK sharpened her understanding of Galápagos plant life - currently a wild mix of glamorous imported and humble endemic species. In her work Bradley explores the history of a place through its plants. Her previous projects have taken her to work with communities and professionals in Bristol, Liverpool and Colombia to reflect on the social meaning of gardens and our personal investment in creating planted environments. With this background Bradley worked with Rachel Atkinson, the coordinator for Solutions for Ecological Restoration at the Charles Darwin Foundation, and local people on gardening projects in the Galápagos. Together they are hoping to contribute to an appreciation of indigenous species and to make them loved.

 

The intentions of the Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme are idealistic and challenging. The artists are not militant environmental activists. Their works are subtle, dreamy, jarring, unexpected. Some of the images are even repulsive and destroy our vision of an idyll. But they are undoubtedly independent witnesses of an environment with many claims on its territory, some of which has led to its degradation and despoliation. 

 

Perhaps these images, videos, sculptures and sound works will instil a moral sense of what is right and wrong in our relentless exploitation of the natural environment. But they may equally raise questions about human rights, in our necessity to find places to live and develop our own cultures. The Galápagos raise many questions. What do we wish for ourselves and our future on the planet, and what do we wish on other people in places with fewer resources than those we enjoy in the wealthy West? The images might remind us that we have to take responsibilities and that we can make choices in our own environments. Images, sounds, thoughts and feelings may linger in the visitors' minds and may at some stage provoke a change in their lives. The sense of crisis on the Islands and in our wider world is apparent for all the artists, but will their work provoke change? Will people be inspired to take action, which can be as simple as balancing our choices by opting for a low-carbon holiday in the British Isles rather than to travelling ever more egotistically to every continent.

If these artworks stimulate our imaginings and provoke a more ethical response to the natural world, then this would be a most welcome and powerful outcome. In any event, what the works do achieve is the formulation of a new canon of pictorial icons of the Islands that have special meaning in the early 21st century. The artists have created both an elegy and plea for nature.

 

But finally, for me, the artworks should serve one main goal: pour décourager les autres. Don't go to the Galápagos, leave the Islands alone. The artists have already gone on our behalf. If you do go, you may destroy what you have longed to see. At the same time there is a more complex question. Emigrants from the Ecuadorian mainland are moving to the Galápagos because it offers opportunities, a dilemma that most people recognise: conservation has to work alongside equitable development. So how can the Islands develop sustainably, while benefiting the Ecuadorian people but not at the same time destroying their treasure islands?

 

I don't feel that I can go. Others will have to make their own moral decision around these deeply interconnected questions. Hopefully we will all come to realise that the paradigms set by the Galápagos are ubiquitous. We can find echoes of what is happening in the Galápagos in the streets of Lisbon and London, in the Devonshire countryside, on the Jurassic Coast, in the Scottish Highlands. The Galápagos archipelago may be a remote place from a European perspective but its questions concerning humans and nature apply the world over, including in our very own backyard.

 

In their conversations Dorothy Cross and Fiona Shaw pondered over the reasons that took them to the Galápagos. Fiona asserted: 'It's also to do with love actually.' The philosopher Bertrand Russell stated that 'The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.' Without knowledge this love would remain helpless and inefficient, and we would be forced to capitulate in most cases of emergency. Scientists propose evidenced theories about evolution and ecology, artists are interested in the science but reflect back a multitude of facets and abstractions encompassing social, political and economical issues. Both offer knowledge about the state of our world and push the boundaries of our knowledge of it. Love and knowledge should be our tour guides in navigating our planet in peril.

 

Bergit Arends is interested in how the sciences and the arts intertwine to form cultural knowledge. She has been Curator of Contemporary Art at the Natural History Museum in London since 2005. The exhibitions she has curated include 'Lucy + Jorge Orta: Amazonia', part of International Year of Biodiversity in 2010; 'After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions' (2009), with accompanying publication Expressions: From Darwin to Contemporary Arts; 'Mark Dion: Systema Metropolis' (2007); and 'The Ship: The Art of Climate Change' (2006) in partnership with Cape Farewell. Previously she managed the science and art funding programme at the Wellcome Trust. She was involved in the artists' selection process for the Galápagos project and is co-curator of the exhibition.

 

 

 

1. Max Andrews, ed., Land, Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook (RSA, London, 2006); and see Culture and Climate Change: Recordings (Shed, Cambridge, 2011) 

 

2. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (Penguin Classics, London, 1989), first published in 1839, p269

 

3. Herman Melville, 'The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles', Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1854), 'Sketch First: The Isles at Large'

 

4. Darwin, p270

 

5. J.A. González, C. Montes, J. Rodríguez and W.Tapia,'Rethinking the Galápagos Islands as a Complex Social-Ecological System: Implications for Conservation and Management', Ecology and Society (Vol 13, No 2, 2008), online at www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss2/art13

 

6. Physicist David MacKay gives a lucid analysis of our energy use in his book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (UIT, Cambridge, 2009; p35; free online at www.withouthotair.com), for those interested in the facts about our energy-hungry society

 

7. Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (Pantheon Books, New York, 2002), p249