The Bluecoat, School Lane, L1
Friday 4th May to Sunday 1st July 2012, 10am – 6pm

Reviewed by Minnie Stacey

Natural Selection brought a collection of artists to the Galápagos archipelago. This exhibition is a staging post for the evolution of their observations and ideas, reflecting the diversity of endemic species in an ecosystem threatened by the demands of discovery.

Jyll Bradley worked with the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz. The exhibition begins with her Vessels, a series of ten drawings presenting the island’s incessant sunlight as a photocopier, intangible yet relentlessly holding everything in its unblinking stare. Photographs on LED light boxes in Audiences showcase Galápagos visitors as small animals, vulnerable and exposed in a volcanic landscape.

Evoking the geological formation of the Galápagos Islands, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt’s Semiconductor drawings depict graphs of seismographic activity from the Tungurahua Volcano in central Ecuador.

The geography of the exhibition itself echoes Paulo Catrica’s photographs of some of the juxtaposed and ramshackle dwellings on the islands, with makeshift sets overtly sectioned by timber exhibition panels in spaces with concrete walls. Opening the smooth wooden drawers of Paulo’s personal archive, Estación Terrena throws up the etymology of keywords, for example ‘ecology’ coming from the Latin for ‘it lives’.

Alexis Deacon’s The Living Rock and The Man Tree personify nature’s conjuring. Wild orange flashed ink has them sizzle with fire and fluorescence among the pick of his instinctive illustrations. His Golden Animals are the genetics of sunlight. Looking at his small pencil and wax crayon drawing The Boy and the Bird feels like sky blue cream melting in your mind, and the lovely smudge of a Scratching Sea Lion is a character fuzz that warms your heart. Amongst his imaginative ink wash illustrations are shipwrecked sailors from his developing graphic novel, castaways set on creating their version of Spain on the Galápagos.

Marcus Coates is interested in how animal consciousness connects with humans. In his Human Report, a wall of televisions features a documentary with a comically larger-than-life sized version of the iconic Galápagos bird – the blue-footed booby – looking like it’s been made out of cereal boxes and matter-of-factly delivering tragically wry observations on homo sapiens’ colonial coercion of the islands. Inhabitants are “parasites” who have lost their instincts. “If you all die it will be okay… more humans will come and start a colony” is delivered with vocal deadpan irony.

The exhibition is refreshingly untidy and urgent with a caveat of endangerment. Tania Kovats’ stuffed road-kill badger, strewn on the floor in a corner, is a surprise of death that wants to be alive. Dorothy Cross’ whale skeleton is in the way as it dives at a rusted bucket. Alison Turnbull warns us that ‘Nature is Life – Look after it’. As if made from sticky cells, the word ‘Nature’ gleams like the elastic cartilage of a larynx, in acrylic, enamel and silverpoint mucous on canvas and board. Native species of butterflies and moths are objectified – transcribed as data on big prints – as if to say ‘we were here’.

Collision and conflict is a cultural evolutionary theme in Galapagos. Using pigment print on adhesive vinyl, Dorothy Cross hangs a huge photo of a grassy landscape with a cow, but the giant tortoise in the foreground provokes the image of an armoured helmet. In her video Almuerzo, giant marine iguanas – their population recently depleted by feral dogs – walk from the sea to hang around tables where humans prepare food. Filipa César’s mysterious film Morel’s Yellow Pages was inspired by the 1940 science fiction novel La Invencion de Morel (The Invention of Morel) by Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares. Blending fiction with documentary, she combines the facts of Americans using the islands for an air base, military shooting practice and bombing training, with Morel’s story of creating an artificial eternity of a fugitive moment in time with the ‘smells’ of captured ‘souls’.

Monster mechanics – nature red in tooth and claw – is self-evident in Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller’s film Cockfight. At times the cocks’ long tails appear to be extensions to the genitals of blinged-up Galápagos gambling men, as they attach clawed talon spurs to the legs of the male birds in a now-banned fuck-up of capitalist values. In Kaffe Matthews’ film, a Fisherman on the Galápagos embodies the need to evolve a way of living in order to survive, largely due to an invasion of tourist fishing ships – the figure of 200,000 visitors a year is set against 30,000 inhabitants.

And when you climb up the long steep staircase and stand on the plinth in Kaffe Matthews’ darkened attic-like area – you’re the fish that jumped out of the water, a pinnacle soaking up evolutionary vibes. There’s a big book with soft vellum pages and the artist asks visitors to respond to her designed space with the pencil provided. The mulching sea-sonics made me imagine I was excitedly splashing my way out of a mirror membrane with a feeling of ‘Hey, it’s now!’ The installation’s called You might come out of the water every time singing.

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