The Theater of Insects
Notes from the Studio
There is a flicker of movement caught by the corner of my eye. I pause long enough from one of those questionably imperative tasks of the day, to ponder a minuscule, seemingly insignificant insect. If one carefully looks at the overlooked, a whole world presents itself. The appearances of insects range from those of menacing aliens to those of creatures of ornamental beauty. Their ingenious structures and designs are unique visual qualities that inspire awe. As an artist I find great aesthetic lessons in their strategies of mimicry, camouflage, and metamorphosis. Delightfully distracted, I am caught in the butterfly net of their visual forms and held absolutely mesmerized with wonder.
The photographs in this book are fantastic field illustrations. While the insects in these images are real, the backgrounds are imaginary altered habitats of my devising. Inspired by the old dioramas found in natural history museums, the pinned insects are arranged in constructed environments. The studio where I create the images is as much a theatrical scene shop as it is a photography studio. The prop room looks like an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities, in that it is filled with specimens of natural history and visual oddities of manufacture. I use free association and intuition to make decisions about arranging the insect with a particular backdrop. Looking at color, shape, and form, I move the elements about until the magic of the image appears. Lighting the scene is challenging as the sets are only about five by seven inches across with a depth of about an inch and a half. Yet the studio lighting is key to breathing a spirit into these pinned specimens and unifying the disparate elements within the mise-en-scène Finally, the performance of the image is concluded with a single click of the camera’s shutter.
figure 2 figure 3
The difficulty with the still-life genre is that one has to animate the inanimate. The phrase “still life,” after all, comes from the Latin natura mortalis, or dead nature. My approach is to consider the still-life set as a theatrical stage, where the backdrops are fabricated and the objects are positioned to create a visual dialogue. In designing the set, I take my lead by considering the aesthetics that are apparent in the insects themselves. Early in my career, I earned a living by working as a scenic artist. In the theater, I learned prop construction and theatrical painting techniques and the transformative quality of lighting that can infuse a scene with a specific emotional mood. Most important, I learned the lessons of artifice and illusion, embracing the concept that theater is the lie that tells the truth.
Each element in a still life contributes to the narrative of the image. The staged sets for these insects use cast-off materials from urban production, which have been partially reclaimed by nature. These include metal that has gone through fire, glass that has become oxidized and iridescent in the earth, plastic that has been pitted by the sea, and paper that is foxed by microorganisms. These found objects are chosen for the visual poetry written in their deterioration and imperfection. In this work, the animating spirit is the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, which celebrates the state of decay as a spiritual reflection of life itself and above all reveres natureAs opposed to the ancient Greek aesthetic of ideal beauty, with its regular proportions and flawless perfection, wabi-sabi sees beauty emerging from ugliness, such as the painterly transmutation that occurs when a piece of metal rusts. Likewise, some insects may seem repulsive at first, but close observation reveals their expressive power.
figure 4 & details
Manufactured objects and insects have appeared together before in art history. In the European iconography from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the insect in still-life painting symbolized the transient nature of all life, as an insect’s life span is literally short and some insects assist in the deterioration of matter. These paintings were cautionary tales with their sumptuous displays of earthly bounty and material wealth, while characteristically including a clue to mortality, such as a skull or an architectural fragment and inevitably a crawling insect. They warned that whatever humans create is in fact fleeting and that all wealth is mere vanity in the face of death. Ultimately, decay and entropy take their toll on every human endeavor. This classic theme of vanitas is carried forward in my photographs, but with the insect featured as the main subject. To reinforce this concept in the work, the specimens are depicted not in their actual size, but rather their scale is large, approximately the size of a human head. The viewer thus confronts the insect on a one-to-one relationship, as an equal, calling into question the perceived human dominance over nature. In the photographs, the natural specimens are combined with the detritus of our manufacture to mirror my observations of the limbo between the natural habitat and the one we have altered, sometimes beyond the point of recognition. Consider the urban environment of any large contemporary city, where trees emerge from concrete and where polluted skies can be glimpsed only through vertical canyons of glass and steel and where the stars are no longer visible, in favor of artificial light. The beauty of a butterfly’s wings belies the reality that it is often toxic. As part of their defense, many of the more visually striking insects are literally pretty poison to a predator. The opulent objects and lifestyles of urban culture unfortunately have a toxic impact on the environment. But the seduction, like the beauty of butterfly wings, is hard to avoid.
figure 5 & 6
The interplay between the natural world and urban culture is illustrated by the phenomenon of industrial melanism. While controversial, the scientific theory that some insects have in fact taken on protective coloring to camouflage themselves in an industrially altered habitat is an apt metaphor for our current environmental predicament. *1 The case often illustrated in textbooks is that of Biston betularia, or the peppered moth, that occurs in both light and dark forms within the same species. The light-colored moth predominated in the population, presumably because it blended with the white birch trunks and the light lichen on oak trees. However, decades after the start of the Industrial Revolution, it was observed in Manchester, England, that the dark form of the peppered moth began to predominate the population, as pollution from the surrounding factories killed the lichen and covered the birch trees with soot. The concept of industrial melanism is a starting point for many of my photographs, which are imaginary interpretations of the scientific theory.
The inability to control what human manipulation of nature unleashes is wonderfully described in popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to captivate. The postwar Japanese films Godzilla and Mothra reflect, in science fiction form, the terrors of nuclear power unleashed, as experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In those films, gigantism is the result of humans overstepping the boundary of natural order. Formally benign creatures become threatening and take on supernatural powers.
Likewise, the large scale of my photographs reveals the more menacing visual aspects of insects that often coexist with their ornamental beauty. Evidence of gigantism does exist in the fossil records. Three hundred fifty million years ago there was a great dragonfly, Meganeura monyi, with a gargantuan wingspan of thirty inches. It is theorized that Meganeura was able to fly only because the atmosphere at the time contained more oxygen than the present 20 percent. Insects have the ability to evolve quickly, despite climate changes. Ironically, humans have no such ability for rapid adaptation, and perhaps as a species we are doomed to be more fragile than insects.
Like moths attracted to the light of a flame only to perish in that flight, I wonder if we, too, are tied to self-destruction through a drive toward greater technological heights. Conversely, we may be able to use technology and our creativity to become more integrated with nature. As always, the future is uncertain. Art and science are not so diametrically opposed. The practice of both begins with the intense observation of nature, which in turn sparks the imagination toward action. Just pause long enough to look. There is a flicker of hope fluttering in the collective peripheral vision.
*1 Judith Hooper in her 2002 book Of Moths and Men (New York: W. W. Norton) called into question the methodology of the experiments conducted by H. B. D. Kettlewell and thus his theory of industrial melanism. The fact remains that the proportion of the dark form of the peppered moth in the industrial areas of England was observed to increase significantly. To this day, it is not clear why this happened.
figure 1: Jo Whaley, Studio Prop Shelf
figure 2 : Morpho deidamia
figure 3: Greg Mac Gregor, Studio Portrait of Jo Whaley
figure 4: Abraham Mignon, Still Life with Fruits, Foliage and Insects, c. 1669 Oil on canvas,
23x19 inches Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Bruce B. Dayton
figure 5&6: Kim Taylor, Peppered Moth ( Biston bettularia) normal and melanic forms on a birch
trunk (5) and on charred wood (6)
Essay, Notes from the Studio is from the upcoming monograph,
The Theater of Insects, Chronicle Books, 2008 c. Jo Whaley
The constructed images were photographed in a studio using strobe lights and a Mamiya 6x7 with a 90 mm lens All prints are Chromogenic Photographs with an edition 10 at 30”x24” and an edition of 15 at 24”x20”.
Still Life with Astronomical Insturments by C. Thum c. 1670-80 Communications Theory c. Jo Whaley
Patricia Hickson, associate curator
San Jose Museum of Art
Alternately familiar, seductive and disturbing, the photographs from Jo Whaley’s Natura Morta series offer multiple layers of visual experience. Traditional still life imagery such as a simple basket of ripe peaches, initially entices the viewer with vibrant, exaggerated color before revealing the unsettling decomposition of the fruit. Significantly, Natura Morta means “still life’ in Italian, with the literal translation of the words being” dead nature”.
Between 1991 and 1996, Whaley created Natura Morta in four thematic categories-the first being Flora, then Cornucopia, followed by Interfacing Habitats and Science and Technology. For each group, she drew inspiration from the rich history of European still life painting. Flora is derived from 17th century Dutch floral paintings-intricate, formal compositions noted for their glistening hyperrealism. Cornucopia relates to 17th century Spanish bodegones-kichen pictures bearing fruit, vegetables and game. In Interfacing Habitats, Whaley humorously reconsiders “after the hunt” paintings, featuring dead animals. And finally, in Science and Technology, Whaley updates the symbol laden vanitas tradition of addressing the transitory nature of human life by considering the long-term effects of modern scientific pursuits.
Combining elements of painting and theater, Whaley constructs still life sets using props from her vast inventory and photographs them. She imbues the traditional still lifes with contemporary cautionary messages by altering and updating the components of her tableaux. The rubbery rind of a cantaloupe is literally laced with rubber bands. Delicate flowers and butterflies are clamped by awkward laboratory equipment. She completes the image with the addition of theatrical lighting and painted backdrops of apocalyptic skies. The artist does not employ digital techniques to enhance her photographs. Whaley’s clever and troubling juxtapositions of organic and manmade objects address her main concern-what, ultimately, are the consequences of our modern, engineered world and consumer based society?
Patricia Hickson, associate curator
San Jose Museum of Art
Using a theatrical process, the sets are constructed and the backdrops are painted.The final set is illuminated with strobes and colored gels.
One exposure is taken using a 4x5 Arcus Swiss View Camera, with a 210 lens.
There is no digital manipulation of the image.The scale of the images is 20x24" and 24"x30".
Polaroid Studio Shooting Session, NYC, 1989 Polaroid 20x24" Camera
This early work represents my first venture in fusing my scenic experience in theater with the medium of color photography. Having received a grant from the Polaroid Corporation to work with the 20x24 Camera in 1989, I created images that translated photography into “ a crude form of theater”, to quote Roland Barthes. I painted backdrops, created stage sets and used theatrical gels to “paint” the figure with colored light; employing an expressive use of color, rather than a descriptive one. While this suite of prints entitled “Global Folly” is small, it forms the visionary and stylistic basis of all my subsequent bodies of work.
In these narrative fictions, the figures are shown under acid rain skies, amongst the debris of urban culture or pouring tea, while some explosion blasts through the distance. While these images depict, a cautionary tale, they are intentionally sensual, having a baroque sensibility of opulent decay. It poses the question: if our natural world is really a paradise, are we causing our own expulsion?
In the poses, I used art historical references to reinforce the context of Western culture.Given the Judeo Christian attitude that the humans have inherited rather than simply inhabit the earth, the source of many environmental problems are deeply embedded in Western culture.