ON THE FLY
Influenced by ecological emergency or a simple fascination with science, these four Canadian artists (Elizabeth Burritt, Jennifer Angus, Aganetha Dyck and Adam Makarenko) are inspired by insects.
BY Portia Priegert
Bzzzzzz – splat.
Your first impulse may be to slap or spray, but a growing swarm of artists is getting an itch to work with everything from ants and aphids to wasps and weevils. While bugs have long inspired creativity — think of scarab beetles decorating ancient Egyptian tombs — contemporary artists are finding interesting new ways to look at the diverse and populous insect world.
Insects evoke reactions ranging from horror to admiration and can be versatile metaphors to explore ideas about collecting, collaborative labor or genetic engineering. French artist Louise Bourgeois, whose 30-foot-high bronze spider, Maman, stands outside the National Gallery of Canada, even posits arachnids as symbols of maternity.
At the Vancouver Art Gallery, Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping used live crickets, scorpions and reptiles to comment on conflicts among different peoples and cultures. But his Theatre of the World, part of a 2007 exhibition, generated debate over artistic freedom when the local humane society intervened.
Growing concern over the environment is a major motivator for the current interest in insects. Artist Aganetha Dyck says hundreds of artists around the world now work with bees, which have experienced mysterious population crashes in recent years. “Artists are frustrated seeing what we humans are doing to destroy the natural world around us,” she says. “Artists are interested in ideas and solutions. It appears that humans do not see themselves as being part of nature and I think this is the main reason our environment is at risk.”
Artists also recognize that even the tiniest and least appealing bugs play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance. “For the most part, our hysteria over insects is unwarranted,” says Jennifer Angus. “Insects play an important role in the health of our environment, from the decomposition of organic matter to the pollination of flowers.” So think twice before you slap or spray — not only could you harm the environment but you also might kill an artist’s muse. Bzzzzzz …
Emerging artist Elizabeth Burritt creates small-scale porcelain sculptures of fanciful hybrid insects, firmly anchoring them to painted wooden bases with single, elegantly placed pins.
Her aptly named In(ter)sect series refers to scientific drawing and museum practices — ways humans try to possess the natural world through science. Indeed, Burritt works like a fantastical genetic engineer, casting and modeling fictitious wholes from the body parts of various insect species.
“In one sense, these interventions may represent certain attitudes about ecological solutions — altering nature to accommodate humans instead of altering our own behavior,” she says. “In another, these pieces may speak about hybridity as natural phenomena that defy taxonomical systems of understanding and truth, and question our ability to comprehend and control the environment around us.”
Burritt, who earned a BFA from Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute in 2007, has been living recently at an artists’ retreat in Montana. “I’ve always had a very mixed relationship with insects, on one hand finding them absolutely fascinating and, on the other, being slightly frightened and repulsed by them,” she says. “However, anything that outnumbers us 200 million to one and has the ability to survive an atomic bombing seems to demand further examination.”
Martha Stewart, she isn’t. But Jennifer Angus, a.k.a. the bug lady, knows how to exploit the ‘ick factor’ with her unique take on decorating with dead insects. Angus considers collecting, the relationship between art and natural history, and the fine line between beauty and disgust by pinning tropical bugs to gallery walls in repeating patterns that echo wallpaper or textile designs. Her recent exhibition, Insecta Fantasia, featured 5,000 insects from 25 different species — including purple grasshoppers and lacy-winged cicadas. “Collecting is like an addiction,” Angus observes. “It’s hard to know when to stop and where to stop.” She grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin, and notes that the insects she uses are plentiful, so harvesting them doesn’t threaten populations.
“Virtually every insect on the endangered species list is there because of loss of habitat, not over-collecting.” Many people have never seen the unusual insects she uses. “I hope that my exhibition will get them excited,” says Angus, who has shown at numerous venues, including the Canadian Textile Museum in Toronto. “And perhaps they will be motivated to get involved with one of the many rain-forest preservation projects out there.”
Veteran Winnipeg-based artist Aganetha Dyck gets plenty of buzz for her interspecies collaborations, as she calls them. She has inserted everything from shoes to football helmets into hives, allowing the bees to wax and honeycomb them in endlessly fascinating ways.
Dyck began working with bees in 1991 after seeing an advertising sign for honey that a beekeeper had inserted into a hive. “I was seeing a mystery, a life force’s work of amazing proportions,” recalls Dyck, who has exhibited across North America and Europe. “I had discovered the work of ancient sculptors and builders, thinkers perhaps. Without hesitation I realized I had discovered new collaborators, a new studio, definitely a new way of seeing. Opening the first hive was not unlike visiting a foreign country, hearing a strange language, feeling a new warmth and vibration, inhaling a new scent.”
Dyck has picked up numerous honors — including a 2007 Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award — and is increasingly concerned about the environment. “Working with the bees has taught me that we humans are not alone in creating nor managing the world we live in … It is time to investigate thoroughly how we are interconnected with the small of the world.”
Adam Makarenko blends fantasy, quirky models and cinematic lighting in Miniature Apiary, a series of eye-catching photographs about honeybees. Makarenko began taking shots of real bees and became fascinated by their collective energy, which he describes as a mix of chaos and order. “I started to research bees and became obsessed with them,” says the Toronto-based emerging artist, who traveled to the University of Illinois to interview a top entomologist.
He then wrote a mythical tale about giant bees in the Langstroth Valley, a fictional beekeeping Shangri-La in the Yukon, and built miniature models of hives and beekeepers, including bees that glow from within their bodies. “All this miniature work is really very experimental,” he says. “Everything that is being made is from scratch, and there is a great deal to think about. There is no how-to book on making miniatures, especially miniature apiaries.” He solved one problem — creating the fuzz on the bees’ bodies — with pipe cleaners.
Environmental concerns are important to Makarenko, who grew up in the black-fly belt of Northern Ontario and then studied film production. “The bee is one of the most exploited insects on the planet. How far can we take them, or take any species, before we affect them and ourselves?”