Cockroaches as Shadow and Metaphor

By SARAH BOXER
The New York Times
Thursday, May 8, 2003

 
 



Catherine Chalmers in her studio with "Hanging," part of her "Executions" exhibition, the third part of her cockroach project.


Catherine Chalmers's SoHo apartment is alive with the sound of imminent death. Crickets, food for a rubbery green tree frog, chirp loudly. The frog sits in a terrarium, a big grin on its face. What's not to smile about? Plenty of other food, a horde of crawling mealworms, is nearby.

The tree frog is one of Ms. Chalmers's stars. For part of a gloriously horrific series of giant pictures titled "Food Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators and Prey," finished in 1997, she photographed the frog in action. Slit-eyed and gummy-footed, it smiles as a praying mantis boldly walks up, taps it on the forehead and climbs aboard. Frog and mantis look like storybook friends. But with one quick lash of its tongue over its back, the frog laps up the mantis. The last picture shows the frog's lips slightly parted as if in a burp. Instant Aesop.

Ms. Chalmers is an artist obsessed. On one white wall she has created wallpaper by gluing dead tiger beetles in tiny five-petaled patterns. On another wall she has glued a lineup of cricket corpses. On the floor lies a pile of sticks, kindling for cockroach immolations. Swimming in an aquarium near the entryway are pink creatures that look like newborn mice with webbed feet. They are African clawed frogs. Ms. Chalmers says they resemble cherubs from a Tiepolo painting.

This gives you a sense of the wild aesthetic universe of Catherine Chalmers but does not quite capture her macabre moral universe. At the moment she is preparing for a photo and video exhibition of cockroach "executions" at Rare, a Chelsea gallery, from Saturday to June 7, and a bigger show of cockroach photographs and videos at Grand Arts in Kansas City, Mo., in the fall.

How did she get to cockroaches? She studied engineering at Stanford University, then went to the Royal College of Art in London. "It took me a long time to learn that I could work with animals and still be in the art world," she said. She started by using dirt, leaves and dead flies in her paintings. Soon she was raising her own flies. She found the swarms beautiful and began taking their pictures.

Ms. Chalmers is not fond of cockroaches. She admits that on the rare occasion that she sees an uninvited one in her apartment, she squashes it. (She keeps her model roaches, all males to prevent breeding, upstate.) Unlike, say, praying mantises, which have "lots of personality, big heads and dramatic sex lives," cockroaches, she said, are "boring and ugly." They are blank canvases. What makes them intriguing, she said, is that everyone hates them.

Beginning in the late 1990's Ms. Chalmers decided to delve into the hatred a little. She began a series called "American Cockroach." For the first part, "Impostors," she wondered: "Is it possible to seduce people into liking them?"

She started painting and decorating her roaches to resemble bugs and plants people like ladybugs, bumblebees, aloe plants and pink veronica flowers then photographed them in pretty settings. To get them to hold still, she chilled the cockroaches in a refrigerator.

For the bumblebee roach, she applied a yellow coat of paint and black stripes. To simulate a bee's fuzziness, she bought yellow and black tassels at a fabric store and cut them up to create flocking.

Cockroaches have always been "our shadows as we spread across the globe," Ms. Chalmers said. They are immigrants (from Africa to the Americas). They are ancient (unchanged since the Carboniferous period, 350 million to 290 million years ago). And they are omnivores. So why do they disgust us? Perhaps, Ms. Chalmers said, "because they are similar to us."

For the second part of the project, "Infestations," Ms. Chalmers explored the fear that roaches will someday take over the human world. She built dollhouse-size roach habitats a bathroom, kitchen and living room then took pictures as the roaches settled in.

By far the most disturbing section of Ms. Chalmers's cockroach project, though, is "Executions": a series of black-and-white photographs and color videos. One picture shows a cockroach lynching, a lineup of roaches hanging by tiny string nooses. Another depicts three cockroaches burning at the stake. A third captures an electrocution: the roach, bound to a small wooden chair with leather straps, is zapped by a bolt from a Tesla coil.

"I want to get out of humanness," Ms. Chalmers said, "to imagine life as a cockroach, to explore the world with long feelers." Then why not photograph roaches dying the way they really die at human hands: in Roach Motels, in pesticide or under a boot? Why depict them dying by hanging, burning and electrocution? Because, she said, it is only when you show the cockroaches dying the way humans do that humans are drawn into the story.

This is troubling. And perhaps not in the way Ms. Chalmers wanted.

As part of the execution series, she made some short videos. They look like cockroach snuff films. One is of a roach being roasted at the stake.

A live roach is shown bound to a vertical stick. You hear breathing sounds, and then, as the flames begin to climb, you see the roach's brown belly breathe deeply and its limbs thrash. As the flames lick the stick, you hear the fire crackle and hiss. Pretty soon the breathing of the fire replaces the breathing of the cockroach. The bug jerks once more, then hangs its head. As the roach turns black and crisp and the flame dies down, the sound of the wind overtakes the sound of the fire.

Ms. Chalmers quickly said that no cockroach had been harmed in the making of the video (or the photographs). She replaced the live roach bound to a stick with a dead one and burned that. The flames that lick at the live roach, she said, were overlaid on the live-roach video.

She briefly toyed with creating real roach executions. "Should I kill some?" she wondered before making the videos. Two experiences told her not to.

In 2001 an Artnews feature about Ms. Chalmers said she was planning some cockroach executions. Irate letters poured in. A few years before that, during a book signing for "Food Chain," which includes pictures of a snake strangling a rat and a mantis chewing off its mate's head, an angry vegetarian came up to Ms. Chalmers and called her a Nazi.

The upshot, Ms. Chalmers said, was, "I bent over backwards not to hurt anything." With Hollywood movies no one wonders whether people are actually being killed, she noted. But with video, people expect honesty.

That did not stop her from making a video of roaches in a gas chamber. As the video begins, you see the misty gray air inside the chamber. The roaches are dead on their backs. Then a few legs twitch. Soon the air begins to clear. You can see the bricks of the gas chamber and the little pipe through which the gas came in. More and more roach legs and antennae wiggle. The sounds of whispers, giggling and breathing fill the air. Soon the roaches are crawling everywhere. It is the cockroach equivalent of Martin Amis's Holocaust novel, "Time's Arrow," in which time runs backward.

While making this video, Ms. Chalmers said, she got very upset, not because of the Holocaust parallel but because she thought she had actually put the roaches through an agonizing death. Previously she had always knocked her roaches out by chilling them. But Betty Faber, an entomologist, told her to try carbon dioxide. So she put the roaches in the chamber and with a pipe pumped in the gas from dry ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide. The roaches went into "dramatic convulsions," she said. "They tossed themselves all over the place, threw themselves against the walls. Then they all fell on their backs."

She thought: "I can't show this. It's visually too disturbing." But then, as the videotape kept rolling and the dry ice cleared, the cockroaches rose from the dead. Their legs started kicking. "The most beautiful part is their getting up," Ms. Chalmers said. She decided to show the uncut video from this point on. It shows the cockroaches as survivors. "I wanted to show their character," Ms. Chalmers says. "They keep coming back."

You might think that Ms. Chalmers would have been upset because she had, by effectively reversing the gassing process, given her Holocaust a happy ending. Or you might think that she would have worried that she had compared vermin and Jews, which is what the Nazis did. (Her photographs of lynchings bring up the same problem. She seems to be comparing African-Americans and insects.)

But these are not her worries. Ms. Chalmers is not making points about the human world but about human relationships to animals.

Soon Ms. Chalmers will say goodbye to the cockroach. She wants to photograph rocks and trees, leaf-cutter ants and blue-footed boobies. First though she has to finish some videos and some mosaiclike drawings, made from the body parts of dead cockroaches. Then she will await the arrival of a nearly human-size cockroach that she is having cast in a translucent amber mixture of resin and rubber. It will hang from a life-size noose. "Then I'm done, done, done, and I can't wait."

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