A Melbourne artist will destroy his life’s work later this month to avoid prosecution for native wildlife offences. But he is willing to risk jail time and thousands of dollars in fines by hosting a final exhibition first.
Gerard Geer says it’s likely he has inadvertently committed dozens of offences under the Wildlife Act because he uses roadkill and other deceased native animals in his sculptures, jewellery and “neo-shamanic” artwork. The artist told Crikey he was “absolutely devastated” to learn his work is inherently illegal, saying he will have to destroy every piece of it to avoid heavy prosecution.
“This has been eight years of my life. This is the thing I’m most passionate about in life,” he said. “Being told that I’m breaking laws for turning something which is otherwise going to be left on the side of the road — rotting and viewed as trash — into something beautiful … is just astronomically illogical to me.”
The potential penalties associated with the collection, possession, display and selling of the native animals include several years in jail and over $50,000 in fines. Geer has collected hundreds of native animal specimens over his eight years as an artist, and each specimen carries an additional offence.
Nonetheless, he plans to throw caution to the wind later this month by holding a final exhibition. “This is the one risk that I would be willing to take,” he said. The exhibition will help publicise his situation so other artists won’t fall into the same legal trap he has. “By doing this I would be educating the public,” he said.
The Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries was unable to confirm that a representative had visited Geer earlier this year to warn of his potential prosecution, but a spokesperson said the department was happy to review Geer’s situation:
“Under the Wildlife Act it is illegal to take native wildlife from the wild — either alive or dead. DEPI understands why people like to have possession of native wildlife for the purpose of taxidermy, and we consider each case on its merits.”
Arts Law Centre of Australia senior solicitor Delwyn Everard says while Geer will be taking a significant legal and personal risk by exhibiting his artwork a final time, “I would doubt very much whether the maximum penalty would be applied”.
“Common sense should prevail, and that legislation should be balanced with the right to creative and artistic expression,” she said. “We would be disappointed to see maximum penalties applied in cases where an artist has not harmed any animals, has not trapped any animals [and] not killed them.”
Brianna Munting from the National Association for the Visual Arts says her organisation has never before encountered a situation like Geer’s, but the law should be changed in Victoria to accommodate his freedom of expression. “There needs to be an establishment of what we call an expert artistic committee that is able to inform on cases where artists’ freedom of expression is being challenged,” she said. “Whilst museums and galleries can have native flora and fauna for educational and scientific purposes in their collection, for artists to actually do it there isn’t an exemption for them.”
Munting dismisses suggestions that any exemption for artists under the Wildlife Act could become a new legal loophole for poachers, noting the legal criteria for a person to be defined as an artist is very strict. “If you were doing it for the purpose of poaching animals then you wouldn’t meet those criteria,” she said.
Geer agrees there should be an exemption, but he acknowledges the potential for abuse. “The last thing I would ever want to have on my conscience would be opening up the gates for people like that to profit from the environment,” he said.