The ancient Egyptians depicted the lowly dung beetle in sculpture and hieroglyphics. Seventeenth–century Dutch painters punctuated their still lifes with butterflies and fruit flies. In Salvador Dalí’s famous work The Persistence of Memory (1931), a cluster of ants crawls over the surface of an orange pocket watch. Artists have long inserted insects into their work, but recently they have become more adventurous about it—using insects themselves. Jennifer Angus of Madison, Wisconsin, pins grasshoppers and beetles, among other more exotic species, to walls to create ornate installations. Claire Morgan of London turns blowflies into floating cubes. Colombian Maria Fernanda Cardoso, who lives in Australia, explores the camouflaging capabilities of leaf bugs and bright green katydids.
In April, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York will open “Dead or Alive,” an exhibition about organic elements in art. Among the artists on the show’s short list at press time were Angus, Damien Hirst, who uses butterfly wings in kaleidoscopic collages, and Miami–based Fabiín Peía, who makes elaborate constructions out of dissected fly parts and cockroach legs.
So what’s driving these artists to embrace the creepy, crawly things that sting, bite, and pollinate? “Throughout all of this work there is this incredible attraction/repulsion frisson,” says David Revere McFadden, the chief curator at the museum and organizer of the exhibition. “These are creatures we poison, ignore, squish; yet they have an extraordinary beauty.” McFadden also points to the growing awareness of environmental issues. Press reports inform of vanishing bee colonies and the ravages of tree–eating beetles. In his widely read tome The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson estimates that humanity “could not last more than a few months” if every insect on the planet disappeared. Insects “are constantly considered a nuisance, but they are really an integral part of our lives,” says McFadden, who studied biology before becoming an art historian.
And so naturally artists have been devising works that spotlight living insects. In the ’90s, Cardoso, who earned an M.F.A. in sculpture at Yale, staged a flea circus. Not only did she train the fleas herself, but she also fed them herself, by placing her hand in their cage three times a day so that the fleas could drink her blood. Conceptual artist Peter Nadin has harvested beeswax from an apiary at his upstate New York farm to use in his textured paintings. In Rotterdam, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny has also made bees his production partners. For his 2006 series “Made by Bees,” Libertíny devised an aluminum mold that the bees used to create 14 “Honeycomb Vases.”
“The structure of my pieces, to a great degree, depended on them,” he says. “Sometimes the beehives weren’t very cooperative. I had to learn to observe. I couldn’t control the process. I couldn’t make a model. It’s nature.” One of the vases is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Another was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last fall as part of the design exhibition “Telling Tales.” The remaining pieces are available through the design gallery Moss in New York for $25,000 each.
By surrendering art making to organic processes of creation and destruction, some artists take on the relationship between nature and culture. Mark Cockram, based in London, began a project in 2000 in which he buries books that he has handcrafted from insect–derived materials (even the paper is from plants fertilized by insects). Larvae, silverfish, and centipedes inhabit the pages until Cockram exhumes the books and puts them on display. At the Pestival in London last fall, a cultural festival “celebrating insects in art, and the art of being an insect,” Cockram exhibited a book that had been buried for three weeks; its paper had been chewed into a fine lace by bugs. “It’s one big circle,” he says. “Insects are everywhere. It’s just that sometimes we choose not to see them.”
Plenty of artists prefer their insects inanimate, or turned into something else entirely. Often artists use bugs to explore deception both in nature and in art. Recently shown in the Pinta Art Fair in New York at the booth of Hardcore Art Contemporary Space, Cardoso’s A Garden of Insects that Look Like Plants (2006) takes advantage of certain insects’ ability to camouflage themselves in their environment, a trait that protects them from predators. For this piece Cardoso created a terrarium in which leaf bugs, leaf butterflies, and katydids mimic the foliage and branches of a plant; it was also shown in a 2008 solo exhibition, “Mimicry,” at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, where her work sold for between $4,000 and $25,000. Morgan, whose pieces have been displayed at ROLLO Contemporary Art in London, breeds her own flies for suspended formations such as Interference (2007), an orderly cube of hanging dead insects. She became intrigued by insects when working on an installation that involved fruit. “Fruit flies started to breed on it, and the clouds of them moving about the space were in complete contrast to the fruit,” she says. “I then became interested in forcing flies themselves into geometric formations—maybe because it defies all expectations of what one might expect of them.” And Belgian conceptualist Jan Fabre used the iridescent carapaces of more than a million emerald–colored jewel beetles (a nonendangered species) to produce a roiling, abstract design on the ceiling of the Royal Palace in Brussels. The piece was reprised, in part, at the Venice Biennale last year.
For some, making art with insects is the adult version of being a child at play. “A lot of people have memories of hunting for bugs and marveling at butterflies,” says Beth Venn, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. “It goes back to that childhood interest.” In 2008, Venn curated Insecta Fantasia, a site–specific installation by Angus, for which the artist pinned thousands of preserved insects to the museum’s walls. The result: a Victorian–style wallpaper pattern rendered in dazzling tropical hues. “Some people would focus on the ‘wallpaper’ and then they’d realize that they were bugs and jump back,” says Venn. “But most people would really spend time with their faces right up against the wall. They were so taken with their inherent beauty.”
This sense of wonder and nostalgia is significant to Brooklyn–based Brian Kenny, who incorporates the shells of cicadas—the large, winged insects known for their boisterous chirps—into small assemblages, creating curiosity cases that channel Joseph Cornell. “I grew up with cicadas,” Kenny says. “When I lived with my family in Buffalo, August would come around and they’d be everywhere. Now, when I see them, it’s a remembrance of things past. It’s like a madeleine. It takes me back to being six.” Kenny, who has been working with various species of insects for almost three decades, shows with Schroeder Romero Gallery in New York, where his pieces sell for up to $3,500.
But nostalgia only goes so far. Revulsion toward insects also fuels much of this work. Peía remembers waking up in the middle of the night at a hospital in his native Cuba to discover cockroaches crawling over him. “The sensation left me a bit traumatized,” he recalls. But the experience led him to produce a multitude of pieces from insect body parts. (He now lives in Miami and is represented by the Myto gallery in Mexico City.) For one work, he created a delicate, transparent flag out of plucked flies’ wings, rendering the unsavory source of his material almost entirely unrecognizable. His sculpture Monumental (2004) is an ethereal cylindrical mesh crafted out of hundreds of cockroach legs. (Prices for his small works start around $5,000, and his large–scale installations sell for more than $20,000.) The goal, he says, was to make an undesirable thing desirable.
“Roaches are interesting animals,” he explains. “It’s a creature that hasn’t changed in millions of years. They are incredibly resistant, and they can be collaborative among themselves. They’re kind of like humans.”
Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer who has contributed to Time, nytimes.com, and Florida Travel & Life. She blogs about art and architecture at c-monster.net.