Insect-ual Design

by Kenzie Broddy

The idea of walking into a room covered in insects is a nightmare for many people. It could put the average teenage girl into hysterics, and maybe the less brave into therapy. But these pest-covered walls are Jennifer Angus’s art, and she says they’re nothing out of the ordinary.

The Textile Museum of Canada, in Toronto, is where Angus’s exhibit was being held. The name – A Terrible Beauty – is rather appropriate. Terrible, would be some peoples’ initial idea of bugs; beauty was the result of the exhibit.

The walls of the opening room are covered in insects that are patterned to create the look of wallpaper. Little insects, medium insects, and well, just plain huge insects are fastened everywhere.

One’s first reaction could be Raid and a fly swatter. Fortunately, at this exhibit the bugs won’t fly off the walls to attack you – just like the front desk attendant promises. Insects are, in fact, the blueprint for the intricate designs.

“This is the culture of hysteria,” says Angus. “I think that for most people when they come to my exhibitions, I expose them to insects they may never have seen before. They probably are not unlike myself that first time seeing a metallic beetle. To think I didn’t even know there were beautiful insects in the world.”

Living in Wisconsin now, Angus originally came from Toronto where her fascination with bugs began. Her former Toronto apartment was located above a laundromat and beside a convenience store. Although her place had a great location, it was a hot pad for mice and roaches to breed. She became interested in the creatures and started to collect them.

“I discovered a garment which comes from the Karen tribe (of Thailand) and it’s called a singing shawl. It was embellished with metallic beetle wings in place of sequins, because they were just using something that was readily available to them. It was very beautiful and kind of flashy. For me that was the revelation . . . The fact that there could be beautiful insects was amazing to me.”
Angus’s work, at first glance, looks like a design that could suit the walls of a home.

“Most people come in and think it’s wallpaper. People walk in thinking they know what they are seeing, and then upon closer examination they find: ‘Ah ha! This is not what it seems.’”

Sarah Quinton is the curator for the Terrible Beauty exhibit. She says it has been a great success, and people are coming for second and third doses of Angus’s work.

“People love it,” says Quinton. “All kinds of people are coming to see this that don’t usually see
textile art. We have people that say they could never come (to A Terrible Beauty) and then do and eventually forget about the bugs. It doesn’t take people very long to enjoy it. People are overwhelmed and then seduced by it.”

The process of Angus’s exhibit is not as easy as pinning up a few bugs and slapping a title on it.
“The insects come to me from the specimen dealers, and they are not good to go,” says Angus, who humidifies the bugs so their bodies are easy to maneuver. When she first gets them, they are stiff and frail, and in the fetal position. The insects then go on a piece of styrofoam floating inside a tupperware container half-full of water. After three days, the insect bodies will be able to move and they are pinned to the wall where they will dry to the shape Angus wants them to.

She uses beetles, which she says are good because they are readily abundant.

Insects with wings in her work include grasshoppers and cicadas, but she does not like using butterflies for two reasons. Firstly, they are too fragile to use. And she says, they are so obviously beautiful to everyone. Angus says she wants to change the way people think of insects. She wants to show insects that ordinary people would not see as beautiful, and make these people realize that there are insects that can be strikingly beautiful.

Powered by the success of A Terrible Beauty, Angus is now traveling the world from England to San Francisco working on more installations. With a busy schedule, her newest idea of an exhibit is twice as terrifying but twice as imaginative. She is installing her exhibit on the walls of elevators, which should bring a completely new experience to the phrase “going down?”

Bug out with more info - Jennifer Angus' website and Textile Museum of Canada's page on her exhibit.

© 2006 Green Banana