Did you know that once upon a time animals could be put on trial? Between the 14th and 17th centuries, there were some extraordinary tales of beastly justice, as recently brought to life by Berlin artist Jill Senft for her project Animals Brought Before the Law.
"I found a book with odd tales of animal trials, which immediately made me wonder and grin as some stories were quite absurd," Jill tells us. "Then I started my research and discovered there are lots of them; not only funny but also partly very cruel. Animals where sadly hanged, burned, drowned, strangled or buried alive."
"I sought out reasons for animal trials, and found they might have been religious superstition, or scapegoating, or putting the hierarchy and cosmic order back into effect. Sometimes it was just to explain the inexplicable."
One of the most celebrated animal trials was that of a rooster in Basel, Switzerland which was accused in 1474 of laying an egg without a yolk. It was a widely held belief that such eggs bore deadly winged snakes, as hatched by witches in league with Satan (patriarchy and paltry-prejudice alert!)
The accused cock's defence attorney didn't argue the charges were false but did argue his client had no pact with the Devil and that laying an egg was an unpremeditated and involuntary act. The judges weren't impressed, though, and the bird and its egg were burned at the stake before a huge crowd. A Hard-Boiled Criminal indeed, to quote from Jill's title for her 3D rendition of the judicial travesty.
This tale is one of three as told through some very beguiling sculptures. The works are moveable, for example, a triptych that can be opened by hand, or a hat that can be unfolded. Some of the sculptures even have motorisation to move by themselves, like this group of pigeons on a grill.
That piece, titled The Rising Cost of Air Travel, portrays a real-life incident in Tripoli, 1963 when 74 carrier pigeons received the death sentence. A gang of smugglers had trained the birds to carry banknotes from Italy, Greece and Egypt into Libya. The court ordered the pigeons to be killed because they were, quote, "too well trained and dangerous to be let loose." Their human puppet masters meanwhile were merely fined for their transgressions.
"Making sculptures was a whole new field for me," Jill continues. "Also, they were partly made of wood and partly 3D printed, which was a super-new way of working and shaping for me. I found it very interesting to combine both techniques together."
Let's finish with the happy tale of Jill's piece Women and Children First, when in a local field in 16th century Stelvio, Italy was accused of damaging crops by burrowing. The rodents were granted a defence attorney who claimed that his clients were actually helpful citizens who ate harmful insects and enriched the soil.
The prosecutor meanwhile argued that the damage they caused was preventing local tenants from paying their rents. The judge was merciful as although he exiled the animals, he assured them safe passage and an additional respite of 14 days to baby mice and those with offspring. In other words, women and children first. The End!