December 20, 2005

Canadian Artist Bug-Eyed Over Insect ‘Wallpaper’

By Julie Mollins

TORONTO -- Most people, faced with an eight-inch jungle nymph insect with green antennae and six spiny legs, would probably run away -- even if the bug was dead and has been for years.

Canadian artist Jennifer Angus took it, and 15,000 other insects, and pinned them to the walls of Toronto's textile museum for an exhibit that looks, from afar, like elaborate wallpaper and aims to parody bizarre Victorian tastes.

"The Victorians were rabid collectors and nothing was sacrosanct," Angus said as she surveyed her work in a series of rooms in the downtown museum.

"To me, the elephant-foot umbrella stand is the quintessential item of exotic and distasteful. That is the spirit I am trying to channel here -- the great abundance and something that is very exotic."

The exhibition, entitled A Terrible Beauty, runs at the Textile Museum of Canada until May next year.

Insects on display include small iridescent-green beetles, large pink and green winged grasshoppers and brown-bodied clearwing cicadas.

The smallest are weevils from Papua New Guinea, half an inch long or less, while the biggest are the jungle nymphs, which come from Malaysia.

Angus, an assistant professor of textile art and design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she and several assistants spent more than a week pinning the dead bugs to wallpaper the rooms in accordance with computer-created designs.

The delicate insects needed softening before their wings and legs could be opened up for pinning.

Angus puts the bugs on a piece of Styrofoam and sets it afloat on a plastic container of boiling water for several days.

"You do have to check on them from time to time since you don't want mold," she said.

She said inspiration for working with insects came from hair ties from India decorated with brightly colored insect parts.

"Here's this thing that creeps you out that's being used as something that could adorn you," she said. "Insects are pretty, insects are beautiful -- I wasn't familiar with that at all."

Angus pays dealers anywhere from 15 cents to $15.00 per insect, many of which are farm-raised in Southeast Asia for collectors and none of which are endangered.

Some of the bugs have been used and reused for seven years. Heads and tails fall off and are painstakingly glued back on so they don't have to be thrown away.

"If things are going well, which usually they aren't, you can pin about four grasshoppers an hour," said Angus. "Because I've pinned weevils so much, I can do between 10 and 15 an hour."

Toronto-resident Sarah Wilner, 38, overcame her fear of insects and brought her two sons to the exhibit.

"I'm actually really terrified of insects," Wilner said. "The colors and the textures made by these bugs is magnificent, but at the same time, it's really creepy because you know they are still bugs that were actually alive."