After an extensive renovation, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will reopen its Renwick Gallery with an exhibit called "Wonder." One of the featured artists, Jennifer Angus, created an installation out of something remarkable and unexpected. Her wall art — flowing in decorative patterns, from geometric to a skull — offers a fascinating realization upon closer inspection: It's made of bugs.
Angus primarily used the exoskeletons of bugs she had from Malaysia, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea, working with breeds that are not endangered. Refinery29 talked to Angus about her intent and inspiration behind these mesmerizing insect designs, as well as the process of creating such a massive piece of art. According to the artist, an environmentalist message resides upon these walls. We caught up with Angus to learn about this intention and what it was in the Pacific region that caught her eye, convincing her how beautiful bugs can be.
How did you select the specimens you worked with for this exhibit? Exactly what bugs are you using and how many are there? "I had the skull motif in mind and I think that because those beetles, which are a kind of weevil, are beadlike; that helped me chart out the skull image as if it were beadwork. Also, those are a very beautiful kind of beetle. When they catch the light right, they're iridescent. They look like one thing from a distance, a bit dark, but when you get up close you see their jewel-like qualities. "As for the other creatures, they are primarily cicadas. Those make up a large bulk of what I have to work with. I don't use butterflies for the simple reason that they don't stand up to the wear and tear of exhibition. Cicadas are much heartier and they're surprising. I don't think people will necessarily have thought of cicadas as being beautiful before."
Do you recycle the insects you use from project to project? "Yes, absolutely! One of the things people have to understand is that I didn't just go out and get 5,000 insects for this exhibition. This is, I'm reluctant to call them, a collection. The weevils are the oldest I have, I've been using them since the mid '90s. Some of these insects are close to 20 years old. They have been gradually culled over the years for me to have that many. In fact, I was thinking about it and there might only be about 200 new insects in this exhibition. "Part of the piece is to talk about the environment. That skull is a warning sign. In this case, it's a warning to man about their habitat, but it's also a warning about insects; that every insect on the endangered species list is there because of loss of habitat, not because of collection. I happened to use tropical species and we know how quickly the rainforest is being cut down."
How did you determine the patterns you created? "That the very bottom of the wall is cicadas in diagonals. It's very much like wainscoting around the room. Then, you have the skulls. Above that, [it] becomes chaotic, so I think the pattern grounds the room and then this disorder that partially forms into shapes. I thought of it looking like fireworks, when you have that moment where you feel like you see the stars and then boom, it disperses. Again, that's a reference to what man likes to do. He has always tried to control Mother Nature, but ultimately, Mother Nature controls us." How did your interest in the plight of insects come about? "I'm not an entomologist, I came to it through my field. I teach textile design at University of Wisconsin, in Madison. I was doing research in the mid '80s and into the early '90s on tribal minority dress in northern Thailand, the area known as the Golden Triangle. Within that region, there are many different ethnic minority groups. I was photographing tribal dress when I came upon a garment from the Karen tribe called the Singing Shawl. It had a fringe in which the person hand strung these green, iridescent insect wings. The wings are so hard that they make a chiming sound. I was blown away by the design. Until that point, I had never thought of insects as beautiful, beyond butterflies. It was a revelation and the ingenuity of using what was in their backyard in place of beads or sequins."
Where did the color on the walls behind the insects come from? "The color comes from commonly used insect dye called cochineal. It is used as a food colorant and also in cosmetics. Anyone wearing lipstick probably [knows it] has a bit of bug juice in it. Starbucks got in trouble a few years ago because they were coloring one of their smoothies with it and vegans were unhappy when they found out. "It is fairly well-known, but can also be used in textiles to create a beautiful red color. Reds and purples have always been difficult to achieve in dyes. For this project, the curator was pushing for something new and different. I'd used cochineal to dye fabric in teaching at the university, but I decided to use it as a paint in this exhibit. It made sense, to put the insects on an insect-infused paint." "Wonder," including Angus's mixed-media installation, will open to the public on November 13 in the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.