Trouble in the Forest

Feature by Ryan Gallagher | 24 Feb 2010

Good art is usually divisive – it causes arguments, provokes feeling; it makes us think about the things that matter. It can cause tears, laughter, violence or even protest – and sometimes a combination of all of these things, as the curator of an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Forest Café entitled The Unholy Trinity discovered recently, when the work on show was embraced by some and vandalised by others.

The controversy surrounding The Unholy Trinity was perhaps predictable. One of the exhibiting artists, Jamie Fitzpatrick, uses taxidermy with a twist – he sews together bits of different animals to create creatures that look like they escaped from a zoo where there was a toxic waste spillage. A bird with what looks like rabbit’s legs hangs from the wall; a squirrel sitting on a shelf has a human hand for a tail. “You must have taken acid mixed with toilet cleaner to think this up,” reads a comment left in the visitor’s book.

But not all visitors reacted with such wit. The Forest is after all a vegetarian café, and some of the clientele clearly could not see beyond the fact that these were once living creatures, now manipulated into weird mutants and hung like ornaments on a wall – so they vandalised them.

Yet the vandals missed the point, for Fitzpatrick’s work does not advocate the abuse of animals or the infliction of suffering; “Jamie has an incredible knowledge and respect for nature”, commented Omar Bhatia, whose work was also part of the Unholy Trinity exhibition.

Rather, Fitzpatrick’s work aims to, in his own words, “reconsider hybridization in the wake of technologically scientific expansion”; or in layman’s terms, to criticise the way in which genetic science has objectified animals and meddled with nature – hence the title of his exhibit, The Unnatural History Museum.
The context must have been lost on the vandals though, who clearly decided it would be more fun to spray-paint the walls and throw Fitzpatrick’s work to the ground than read the lengthy explanation pinned to the wall accompanying it. Or perhaps they were so entranced by the visually arresting, perversely grotesque sight of the animals that they were blinded to the bigger picture: that is, that the animals are merely reflections of the freakish science that inspired them.

“Art disturbs, science reassures,” said the French painter George Braque – but Fitzpatrick’s work seeks to challenge this notion; his mutant creatures reminding us that science has a dark side too, and that, ironically enough, sometimes the worst vandals of all are not the ones wielding spray-cans in galleries, but the ones manipulating genes in laboratories.