Frank Hesse / Projects / Wild Rabbits (2007)
Frank Hesse - Wildkaninchen
Slide-installation with two projectors and control unit. 10'40.

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The slide-installation tells the story of the St. Peter’s Island rabbits. Historical images and photographs taken by Dr. Charles Huber in the 1970s, whilst undertaking the last scientific documentation of the animals, are used to tell the story. A unique colony of wild European rabbits populated the St. Peter’s Island in the Lake Biel up until the 1990s. It was the only existing outpost of the species in Switzerland, which is a peculiarity that can be traced back to a certain Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spent six weeks on St. Peter’s Island in 1765. Tired from the strain of being on the run for so many years, Rousseau petitions the authorities imprison him on island for the rest of his life. Before his request is declined, and he is forced to continue his flight, he establishes a colony of rabbits on the neighbouring island, where, according to Rousseau, “they can breed in peace without having to fear anything and without causing any harm”. Thus, they could sustain the life the celebrated philosopher was hoping to lead on the island before his plea was rejected, and he was forced to take flight again.
Frank Hesse - Wildkaninchen
View Flash documentation
of the slide installation
[720x560, 10'40, 1,8 MB]  ...>
Subtitles ...>

Years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau will describe the six weeks he spends on a tiny Swiss island in 1765, as having been the happiest of his life. The time he spends on St Peter’s Island, in the middle of Lake Bienne, is documented in his Confessions and in Reveries of a Solitary Walker: The shores of the Lake of Bienne are wilder and more romantic than those of Lake Geneva, since the rocks and woods come closer to the water, but they are no less pleasing. [...] In the middle of this beautiful, nearly circular expanse of water lie two small islands, one of them inhabited, cultivated and some half a league in circumference, the other one smaller, uninhabited, untilled, and bound one day to be eaten away by the constant removal of earth from it to make good the damage inflicted by waves and storms upon its neighbour. Thus it is that the substance of the poor always goes to enrich the wealthy. Rousseau has been on the run since his books were burnt in Paris in 1762. At first he finds refuge in the former Prussian enclave of Neuchatel. However, roused by members of the clergy, the local population turns hostile and he is pelted with stones as they chase him away. Charmed by St Peter’s Island and tired from the strain of being on the run, Rousseau petitions the authorities to keep him prisoner on the island, so that he might spend the rest of his days there. He assumes that he is safe from attack and he hopes his pursuers will be content in the knowledge that he can not cause any further mischief from that location. During his short stay, he enjoys island life to the full. He performs botanical studies, works in the garden, and rows on the lake. Before his request for voluntary incarceration is declined and he is forced to flee his sanctuary, he establishes a colony of rabbits on the small neighbouring island: a perfect home for rabbits, which could multiply there in peace, without harming anything or having anything to fear. After Rousseau’s expulsion, the rabbits serve as a living testament to his presence on the island. The first colonisation attempts prove unsuccessful, however, due to a lack of appropriate soil. The situation changes between 1868 and 1878 when a large-scale water-correction scheme causes expansive beds of sand to emerge above the water line. A small strip of land is formed between the two islands and the mainland: the so-called Heidenweg. The new path corresponds almost exactly to the route Rousseau used to take in his rowing boat. The second attempt to introduce wild rabbits to the island, which was initiated by the hunters of Bienne during the 1880s, is more successful, and a lasting colony is founded. As the species is not indigenous to the area, the colony represents the only one of its kind in Switzerland. A second water-correction scheme is carried out between 1963 and 1973, in order to remedy substantial water-level fluctuations. An unintentional by-product of the applied measures sees an end to the regular flooding of the rabbit warrens. The improved conditions enable the rabbits to thrive and the island soon boasts the world’s most densely populated wild-rabbit colony. Dr Charles Huber, who was not only responsible for the last scientific documentation of the animals but also for the photographs, counted 1500 specimens on the island in 1970. Twenty years later, the local authorities decide to introduce polecats and martens to the island, in order to curb the growth of the colony, which had by now reached epidemic proportions. The measures introduced to curtail the expansion quickly lead to the extermination of the entire St Peter’s Island rabbit colony.