Catherine Chalmers
American Cockroach

The Roach is Us is Not Us
Many insects have fluttered through the art world over the centuries, usually relegated to the margins. Flies hover over cut melons and moths flutter past candle flames in Dutch sixteenth century vanitas still lifes. More recently, strange forms of fowl and fauna have taken up residence in the paintings of Alexis Rockman, and Damien Hirst unveiled his glass box containing flies, a cow's head, and a bug zapper. But for the most part, the world of sex, death, and feeding among insects like hornworms and praying mantises and among animals like tarantulas, cornsnakes, and Argentine horned toads has been largely ignored by the art world. Until Catherine Chalmers came along. In her first book Food Chain, Chalmers meticulously documented a rarely looked at cycle of eat and be eaten. As Chalmers notes, "Today, people tend to deny the obvious fact of death and violence in their world." And this is especially true with regard to animals, which tend to fall into the category of either pests or pets. Our connection to nature and the animal world has been domesticated. "In the past, animals had a much higher value in peoples' understandings of themselves." With her first book, Chalmers set out to change that. Using a strobe light and camera, Chalmers clinically orchestrated and then documented the ballet-like encounters between predator and prey. Shot against a pristine white backdrop, Chalmers' mini-Olympiad of feasting begins inauspiciously enough with a group of very green hornworm caterpillars encircling and then voraciously eating their way through a plump tomato-turning it into a watery pile of pulp and seeds in the process. In the next photo, an engorged hornworm is punctured by the mandibles of a praying mantis, who will in turn be snacked on by a tarantula, and so on up the food chain. The ferocious ballet of death ends with a White's tree frog lapping up a preying mantis perched innocently on the frog's head. The immaculateness of her stop-motion choreography of degustation isn't all that surprising, since Chalmers, besides being trained as a painter at London's Royal College of Art, is also an award-winning figure skater.

And now Catherine Chalmers has embarked on a series about what must rank among the least loved insect in the animal world: the American cockroach. Chalmers' new series is entitled American Cockroach and her project stars the despised visitant to worldwide households: the American cockroach, a.k.a. the Periplaneta americana, also known as the water bug. Like her earlier photographic work, Chalmers' new series theatrically dissects the life of the prehistoric cockroach and the sometimes-surreal operations of nature that deposited the creature plunk in the middle of modern kitchens and bathrooms. But whereas her earlier work was confined to photography, her new project encompasses video, sculpture, drawing, and still photography as well.

From a phylogenetic standpoint, the cockroach is not a mystery: it is an insect of the suborder Blattaria, having six-legs and a chitinous body. To reproduce, the females lay eggs in an ootheca, a bean-shaped sac from which nymphs are hatched. There are more than 3,500 species. Of these, only ten are officially deemed pests by the World Health Organization. The roach is a scavenger and is remarkably like and unlike its human hosts. Though there are many species of roaches that live in the wild, Chalmers' roaches find their natural habitat in our domestic habitats: under kitchen sinks, in ventilation ducts, under baseboards, in the woodwork between walls, in bathrooms and dens-anywhere that provides the roach with the necessary food, water, and shelter it needs to survive. Like us, the roach is a relatively recent immigrant to America, arriving from western Africa to America in the early years of the slave trade. The American cockroach is remarkably similar to the human hosts it thrives among: it is an omnivore; it scavenges food; it eats a lot of things that surround humans-everything from leftover food scraps to the glue in wallpaper and books. The roach has adapted almost perfectly to live among humans. It is also reviled by the people who make its life possible. When not actively the subject of extermination, the American cockroach is relegated to oblivion and repression. The lowly roach would seem to be an unlikely subject for high art.

In her American Cockroach project, Chalmers records the half-imaginary life of the domestic pest known as the cockroach. The roaches are and aren't exactly your kitchen sink generic water bugs-Chalmers orders them from a biological supply company, tends and feeds the creatures, and then gives them roles in a series of elaborately constructed theatrical set pieces which she films and photographs with the solemnity and precision of a family portrait photographer. The results are sentimental and horrific and deeply unsettling. The photographs are not exercises in entomological verite. On the contrary, they suggest the various illusions and dissimulations that plague human beings when they try to picture nature to themselves. Chalmers' photographs, sculptures, and videos transform roaches into a surreal projection of the human psyche, a kind of mythos of the insect that is part curiosity and part revulsion. This is not altogether surprising-Chalmers' earlier series was also about things most humans don't want to see and yet can't take their eyes off of: the cycles of eat and be eaten that rule the natural world and are repressed by humans who, as Chalmers notes, generally like to pretend that the food they eat is not killed.

Where her earlier series located itself on that surreal line between the story of eating breakfast and the story of being eaten for breakfast, Chalmers' new project American Cockroach offers up an ecosystem where the laws of roach life and survival become strange and distorted human manifestations, not so much a biology but a mythology of the common house roach. Her eco-system is at once natural and exquisitely overwrought, seen schizophrenically from behind the lens of a camera as well as shot from the one-on-one perspective of the roach itself. When is a roach not a roach? When it enters the human imagination and becomes the subject of a photograph or a drawing-comprised of roach parts. This is particularly true of Chalmers' spatially and emotionally disorienting videos, most notably Squish, which was shot at roach level and in roach perspective, and is accompanied by a drumbeat soundtrack to the insects rapid scrambling past the camera lens with gravity-defying speed. In this video, along with another video, Burning at the Stake, which features the mock burning of a roach, the viewer comes unnaturally close to empathy: experiencing the uncanny and unreal life-and-death travel times of the roach itself. In a third video, Chamber, Chalmers uses carbon dioxide to incapacitate a cluster of roaches and then waits for the carbon dioxide to wear off. The camera pans back, color slowly infiltrates the film (which began in black and white), and slowly the roaches wriggle their antennae, flip themselves over, and stage their own b-movie resurrection version of The Thing That Wouldn't Die.

In a very large cast from resin, Hanging, Chalmers presents a roach magnified to nearly six feet high-a morphed-up sculptural installation piece that is as much about the mock artificiality of roach disgust as it is about the roach. In another large scale installation piece entitled Legs, Chalmers has fabricated four foot long cockroach legs and piled them high on the gallery floor, making the idea of roach eradication a visceral collection of dismembered body parts.

Chalmers' new roach case study photos, shot up close with a 60 millimeter macro lens, subject the roach to some very contemporary fantasias: home décor/gardening á la Martha Stewart; tabloid TV style death-penalty executions; and one new form of sport: extreme pest control. The project is comprised of three different sections - Executions, Impostors, and Infestations - which contains work in a number of different media including drawing, sculpture, photography, and video. The Executions series depicts roaches being electrocuted, hung from miniature nooses, and burned at the stake. None of the roaches in the photographs however was actually burned or executed or hung-in fact, the roaches were already dead by the time they were photographed. In the case of the gas chamber photos, the cockroaches were immobilized with carbon dioxide and woke up a few minutes later.

In one photograph from the series entitled Infestations, Chalmers photographs 4 or 5 roaches perched around a miniature bathtub sipping sweet banana water in what looks like a still from a kind of dollhouse horror film. What William Wegman did with dogs, Chalmers does with her cockroaches, only her photographs aren't about loved creatures dressed up to look like granny. The photos of roaches invading cute, chintz laden, wallpapered dollhouses and roaches subjected to electroshock style executions are queasy, disquieting, and mordant. They blur the line between human and animal worlds. They suggest psychotropic bug rituals á la William Burroughs. Like the videos, the photos make us see the roach eye to eye. The roaches themselves exude a pseudo solemnity. In the series entitled Impostors, insects are given a makeover, embellished with paint and feathers to look like bumblebees, lady bugs, and even fantasy bird-like creatures in photographs that resemble twisted House & Garden photo spreads-designer biogenetic engineering for roaches.

All three series map out a perverse natural phylogeny of the common house roach, a social tableux vivant in which the roaches' milieu is also our milieu, a strange household world where the roach and nature are disguised to look like half-human aesthetic creations. Part of the Infestations series includes drawings made not with pencil markings but with roach parts glued on paper to resemble inscriptions, mutating biomolecular cell structures, as well as decorative wallpaper patterns. Here home décor, roach extermination, and ritualistic drawing practices come together in unsettling ways that blur the line between insect mortality and human handicraft. In drawings generally devoted to a single cockroach part, Chalmers glues cockroach wings, antennae, and legs respectively to create a hypnotic, cascading pattern on the drawing paper. These body parts, all taken from dead roaches that Chalmers has raised for her projects, appear photographic in their detailing and veining so that once again mimicry rules: only here insect parts mimic photographs as well as lines drawn on paper. In Trophy, Chalmers has mounted the head of a roach so that it appears to be floating supernaturally over the paper, complete with long looping antennae-thus creating a mordant, haunting 3-D trophy piece on the perils of small game extermination. In series of four drawings that Chalmers refers to as Pesticide drawings, Chalmers pastes various roach parts into the molecular structure for Chlorpyrifos, the chemical compound used in a number of roach insecticides, immortalizing the eternal chemical substances used to eradicate the common cockroach.

The photographic nature shots carry something of the eternal and the taboo about them. Chalmers' immediate precursors are the surrealists: Max Ernst, who depicted humans with insect heads in his collage novels, as well as André Breton and Roger Caillois. In an essay entitled "Mimicry and Legendary Psychathenia," Caillois described the psychotic ability of the praying mantis to mimic its surroundings perfectly, thereby losing all sense of boundary between self and other, between animal and surroundings, between figure and ground. Likewise, in his essays on convulsive beauty, Breton focused on the mimicry of coral reefs and also moths, which looked to Breton like, respectively, classical statuary and a predator's eyes. Chalmers' works are no less surreal in their mimicry; they conflate human desire with the ravenous but no less desiring world of insects and animals. Her photographs are close-ups of the place where human and insect desires become one. Not surprisingly, the photos subject the common roach to acts of violence, decorousness, and sublimation that would make most people wince. The photos are allegories rehearsed in the insect kingdom: each series tells a story-the systematic extermination of a species and hence references of a historical nature such as lynchings in the American south and the Holocaust. In other photographs, the elaborate staging and Day-Glo colors suggest a kind of perverted insect version of a David LaChapelle fashion spread. Other photos tell a story too-of how humans see roaches as highly unfashionable pests but regard insects such as ladybugs, bumblebees with something that borders, just as perversely, on affection. In a photo where a roach has had bits of peacock feathers pasted to its back, mimicry, a tactic used by insects to both hide from predators and capture prey, is rendered as a kind of repressed nightmare wherein something ugly is transformed to look like something beautiful. Enter the strange, mythological ecosystem of the roach were ugliness and beauty are hard to tell apart.

Chalmers' photographs straddle two worlds. In her photos, roaches become almost affectively human and almost beautiful. The photographs are at once natural and antiseptic; they offer up hyper-realist depictions and time-lapse photo narratives along with brutal stage props such as mock electric chairs or nooses, and a lush color scheme (in Impostors and Infestations) that would make your average interior decorator blush. In this manner Chalmers' work unveils the varying and contradictory aesthetic responses of human beings to the natural world.

By 2003 it should be clear that nature is an aesthetic construct and that nothing, especially nature, is natural. Humans see what they want to see and the things they don't, they aestheticize into things quite unnatural. Chalmers' new photographs are exercises not so much in the surrealism of nature but in the surrealism of human beings' desires for and repulsion by the natural. The elaborate and kitschy staginess suggests just how hard it is to see nature straight. As Chalmers noted, "the photographs stage sentimentality and horror." Nature photographed becomes nature perverted, nature sentimentalized, nature repressed, or nature re-told. The photographs are minor miracles of biogenetic engineering achieved by marrying stagecraft with photography, video, and drawing. Together, these works cumulatively suggest the artifice and theatricality of still-life photography and art in general-and in that way they suggest how unnatural the human relation to nature actually is.

Tan Lin
New York, 2003



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