Claudia Terstappen on art, science and shooting road-kill


It’s too late for the animals Claudia Terstappen photographed for A Language of the Vanishing, her solo exhibition at the La Trobe Visual Arts Centre. Some were crushed by cars speeding through the Australian outback, while others were pickled in jars by scientists with misplaced intentions. Despite their grisly endings, Terstappen presents the animals in a serene and surprisingly pleasing light in an attempt to draw our attention to both their beauty and their plight.

While it may be too late for these creatures, it’s not too late, she hopes, for the rest.

Toby Fehily spoke to Terstappen about her life, her exhibition and the unique role of art in spreading awareness about animals.

Toby Fehily: You grew up in Germany. How did your interest in science begin?

Claudia Terstappen: My father was a medical doctor. After school, I would go to his practice and then he would take me home. Sometimes I had to wait for an hour and I would sit in the lab where he took blood samples. He had a microscope, which was the most fascinating thing for me… My brothers and I were given this old microscope, so I took some pond water and also a little machine to spin the water around. Then I would get the little glass tubes and put water in there and spin them around a minute and look at the drop under the microscope. It was amazing, it was just a completely different world.

TF: What’s the story behind the two series in your show, A Language of the Vanishing?

CT: I was invited by the Berlin Natural History Museum and one of the universities in Berlin to come and do experiments on wonder. During that time I had the ability to work in the storage area of the museum and I had a look at all the drawers and the shelving of all these animals that had been killed for science for decades. It’s a massive collection. I took photographs of the specimens because it was so confronting. If an animal hasn’t got a face, like a starfish, it doesn’t really make you very emotional, but when you see monkeys looking at you through the alcohol solution in a giant jar, you wonder, my god, what are we doing?

I was also working on a body of work on roadside memorials. I was driving around Australian roads, mainly Victoria, and I was looking at the memorials and trying to understand why people make them, and what they look like, and what similarities they have to altars or churches or shrines. When I parked the car in many of those areas, there were also dead animals on the road.

It started with a turtle. The turtle was so flattened, it was just incredible. It looked like a pattern in the tar. I stopped the car and I just had to take a photograph. It took about a year before that sank in, and then I started to look for more animals on the roads.

I cut the road out in Photoshop and put the animal on a neutral background because I don’t want people to think straight away about road-kill or traffic. I want them to see the animal and understand it as a kind of death mask.

Claudia Terstappen, Chameleons, 2008, digital print on archival paper.

TF: What is the dialogue you wanted to create between your two series?

CT: I just wanted to generate questions: what kind of sacrifice are we making and how far do we want to go? For me, it was important that we look forward and we look backwards. You have a lot of natural history museums that show animals that have been killed, either stuffed or in jars. And that’s for scientific research, but it’s also for decoration, for hunting, people wear fur coats. I wanted to touch on all of those things without necessarily showing photographs of that. I wanted people to understand that, or ask themselves if it is necessary that we kill all those animals for scientific research or for our pleasure.

It’s the same with the roads. We want more roads because it’s more convenient to go from A to B in a quicker way, but we’re cutting up the habitats of animals. They need to cross roads, to either get food or mate with their partners, and then they get run over because they are not aware of the cars and it’s not part of their life. I thought it would be good to have different aspects of one theme combined in an exhibition to ask these questions and perhaps generate more awareness.

TF: Why do you use photography for these works?

CT: For me, it’s like a diary. I use a camera like a diary for thought, for situations I don’t want to forget. It becomes an archive: an archive of ideas, an archive of situations. And when you photograph dead things, it makes that animal unforgettable because it’s in the photograph. It’s kept alive in an artificial way.

I try to avoid blood and guts because I want the animal to look attractive, I want people to feel interested and not shocked or anything like that. I want people to understand the aesthetic of the animal and the beauty, even if it’s dead. I mean, they can see the feathers or the details of the body in some way because it’s enlarged, but they also see it in a different way than if they had just passed by in a car. I wanted to stop time and stop the viewer to have a good look.

TF: What is the unique role art can play in spreading awareness about animals?

CT: There are journalists that write great articles and there are writers writing great books, but the visual world, it hits you like music. You listen to music and all of a sudden you become so emotional that you don’t know what hit you. There are images I’ve seen in my life that I’ll never forget. Some images you would love to delete, like on your computer, but you can’t because you’ve seen them and they’re stored. And they hit you in a way that you can never forget.

Claudia Terstappen: A Language of the Vanishing
The La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, Bendigo
28 September – 6 November

Interview Words by Toby Fehily