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A Terrible Beauty

Date Nov 26, 2005 - May 14, 2006
Artist Jennifer Angus
Curated by Sarah Quinton

Exhibition Overview

A Terrible Beauty's intricate geometric patterns are drawn onto the gallery walls using 15,000 tropical insects pinned into exacting patterns that transform the gallery space into four sensational tableaux. In this 2005 site-specific installation, Jennifer Angus abstracts the languages of pattern, colour and materials found in a range of world textiles. Hers is a delightful yet satirical approach to art making that reflects upon the warmth and comforts of home, travel, storytelling, and the human compulsion to form collections and induce order.

Additional Information

Since 1999, Jennifer Angus has been creating site-specific installations composed of thousands of insects pinned directly to the wall in intricate, repeating patterns. A Terrible Beauty, a new work created especially for the Textile Museum of Canada, continues these projects by further subverting wallpaper and textile patterns customarily found in domestic settings. Here the warmth and comforts of home have undergone a metamorphosis, resulting in subtly disturbing yet surprisingly beautiful environments created by the application of 15,000 insects in ornamental patterns. This exhibition reflects on the Victorian penchant for collecting and displaying exotic objects from around the world by imagining rooms belonging to a fictitious collector. Angus has designed a printed wallpaper pattern especially for her Toronto show in which playful pastoral scenes (based on those found in 18th-century toile de Jouy textiles) are enacted by bugs.

Installation, <i>India Room</i>, Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation, detail of <i>India Room</i>, Photo: Stephen Funk
Installation, detail of <i>Egypt Room</i>, Photo: Stephen Funk
Installation, <i>Entryway</i>, Photo: Jill Kitchener
Jennifer Angus, <i>Flower Room</i>, Photo: Stephen Funk
Jennifer Angus, <i>Ladybug, Ladybug</i> (2004), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation, <i>Flower Room</i>, Photo: Stephen Funk
<i>Sampler</i>, USA, early 19th century
<i>Purse</i>, China, early 20th century
<i>Cloth</i>, France, 18th century
<i>Waist cloth</i>, Indonesia, early 20th century
View Collection Artifacts from this Exhibition

Jennifer Angus, 2005

Jennifer Angus has travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia where she learned about textiles that are adorned with metallic-like beetle wings. She has strong interest in pattern and studies how world cultures use pattern to communicate. The patterns on the walls in A Terrible Beauty are drawn from traditional textiles. In the artist's words,

"There is often confusion as to whether the insects in my work are real. Yes, they are, although they are dead and dried. The colours are their natural colour. I have spent considerable time in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Malaysia where most of the insects I work with come from. None of these species are endangered. (Endangered insects are at risk because their habitat is threatened; not because of over-collecting.) They have been purchased through reputable insect specimen dealers throughout North America, Europe and Asia. They are initially collected by indigenous peoples who live in and around the rain forest. These people have a vested interest in protecting the rain forest, for harvesting insects provides a livelihood."

A Prologue by Jennifer Angus

On the first day of April, an expedition party set out to capture the elusive Goliathus Hercules and return with a live specimen. It was a creature of legend, a variety of insect described as being the length of a man's foot with protruding shiny black horns tipped with gold and said to have inspired ancient Japanese Samurai armour. The intrepid explorers endured intense physical and mental hardships during the three-month expedition. The monsoon rains had started. Dampness compounded with sweltering heat, the infernal buzz of mosquitoes and blood-sucking leeches made progress slow, and comfort was at a minimum. The severe injury of one of the party nearly caused the quest to be forsaken; yet the expedition leader remained focused and resolute. They were rewarded for their efforts when at last Goliathus Hercules was captured on the tenth day of June.

The explorers returned to tremendous fanfare and acclaim from the Geographic Society. Goliathus Hercules was displayed in the great exposition and all who saw him marvelled. Sadly, despite the long life attributed to the beast, the available food and cooler temperatures did not agree with him and he expired after just three months in captivity. Our intrepid expedition leader had reached the pinnacle of a career and retired to become an eccentric recluse rarely venturing out of doors. Welcome to the home of my eccentric explorer and collector!

A Terrible Beauty

Sarah Quinton, Curator, 2005

It is the nature of nature to be both creator and destroyer. In William Blake's 1794 poem, The Tiger, the poet articulates these contradictory forces. Blake found the exotic in the tiger (a fearsome creature from the far reaches of the British Empire) and the familiar in the lamb (a domestic mainstay of British agriculture). Here Blake dramatically combines the far-away with the familiar:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

...When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Jennifer Angus interrogates the languages of pattern, colour and materials found in a range of world textiles. In A Terrible Beauty, the artist reworks these formal elements and delves into culturally and historically specific precedents. Hers is a delightful yet satirical approach to art making that reflects upon the warmth and comforts of home, travel, storytelling, and the human compulsion to form collections and to induce order where the potential for disorder is overwhelming. A Terrible Beauty's intricate geometric patterns, familiar to us through wallpapers, textile designs, interior furnishings and the clothing we wear, are drawn onto the gallery walls using thousands of tropical insects. The insects are pinned into exacting repeat patterns that transform the gallery space into four sensational tableaux, reminiscent of theatre sets - recreations of a fictional Victorian collector's home. She creates a protagonist with an entomological collection that embodies both the scientific enthusiasms of his time and his own overwrought infatuation with the taxonomies of living organisms.

And so we enter the Flower Room, a caricature of Victorian flower culture and the prevailing stereotype of women (of an elevated social status) as delicate, passive and fleetingly beautiful creatures whose relationships to nature had to do with fertility, fragility and innocence. These women were protected from harsh living conditions, which were the reality of their fellow urban dwellers. The Flower Room, with its pretty, scroll-like designs (made with thousands of dead and dried insects) captures an era when fashionable pastimes for the leisure classes included arts and crafts such as wax flowers, hair wreaths and jewellery, as well as knitted, crocheted and embroidered floral arrangements with all of their attendant symbolic languages. To a Victorian sensibility, the chrysanthemum represented cheerfulness, the daisy, innocence, and the daffodil, respect.

Victorian women also created collages (framed and under glass), a lesser-known art form of dried seaweeds, shells, grasses, beads or insects glued or sewn onto paper or fabric. Rare today because of their fragility, these pictures - which frequently included homilies, poems and commemorative texts - were both lighthearted amusements and indications of the botanical or scientific learnedness of their makers. They are of the same family as the better-known stitched samplers of the time, artistic expressions as well as indications of literacy and social status. Presiding over the ornate walls of the Flower Room is a heroically scaled excerpt (spelled out with beetles) from Lewis Carroll's fittingly absurd 1872 children's story, Alice Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice has a very nonsensical discussion with a gnat.

The Japan Room, the India Room and the Egypt Room are dramatically staged spaces whose interiors are infested with kaleidoscopic renditions of traditional textile patterns that originated in each of these world regions. Angus has adorned the walls with masses of insects whose placement echoes the designs of immanently collectible 19th-century traditional textiles. Picture frames, bell jars, curio boxes and display cases containing insect specimens - along with a series of handmade ceramic urns - partially furnish these uneasy interiors. Angus situates her unknown collector's arcane relationship to collecting by presenting a Victorian atmosphere of conspicuous acquisition and the "thrill of the new" along with an intemperate impulse to possess "stuff" - neither functional, nor useful, nor particularly personal, but essential to the satisfaction of the pathological collector.

Jennifer Angus's hand-printed wallpaper is a design based on the idyllic imagery typical of toile de Jouy- 18th-century copperplate-printed textiles that have never really gone out of style. This additional layer of imagery puts yet another twist on the ever-shifting meanings of our collective material culture. As a subtle preface to the installation, Angus has papered the walls with her screen-printed version of this narrative style of repeat patterning. She has substituted toile de Jouy's traditional imagery of gentrified society at leisure, pastoral landscapes and mythological and literary settings with a collage of anthropomorphized insects at work and at play - images that are appropriated from 19th-century children's storybooks. And throughout the exhibition are stacks of calling cards with cheery quotes and images from historical sources such as Vachel Lindsay's (1879-1931) An Explanation of the Grasshopper:

The Grasshopper, the Grasshopper,
I will explain to you:
He is the Brownies' racehorse,
The Fairies' Kangaroo.

And Robert Graves's (1895-1985) The Blue Fly:

Magnified one thousand times, the insect
Looks farcically human: laugh if you will!
Bald head, stage-fairy wings, blear eyes,
A caved-in chest, hairy black mandibles,
Long spindly thighs.

Textiles are never just textiles; embroidery is not ever just embroidery; nor is lace making ever simply lace making. And collections are never just collections. Installed at the Textile Museum of Canada, a museum that collects, studies and displays ethnographic artifacts from around the world, A Terrible Beauty is presented within a context of human knowledge, ownership, connoisseurship, power and value. Jennifer Angus tells her story of a stereotypically obsessed collector through a complex matrix of personal and institutional collections and their unique histories. While the identity of her curious collector remains a mystery, his story presents one of the conflicting tensions between the impulsive and the repulsive features of unbridled acquisitiveness and the never-ending efforts on the part of the collector to display and contextualize his collection. The artist's unimaginable labour in pinning thousands of insects to the walls of A Terrible Beauty paradoxically mimics the collector's own fastidiousness ordering.

The insects in A Terrible Beauty are from the artist's very large and unique personal collection. Jennifer Angus implicates herself as both the subject of her work - a collector of insects, books and textiles, and a habitual world traveller - and as a critical proponent of the act of collecting. Her Victorian collector and his peers would have collected endangered species and expressed no concern for the well-being of their natural environments. Angus, on the other hand, obtains her insects from reputable dealers who trade exclusively in specimens that are harvested as a renewable resource: hers is an ecologically sound approach.

When she makes installations such as this, Angus's entomological archive metamorphose from an unfathomable (chaotic, to those of us who don't know any better) natural order into an unsettling yet seductive dreamscape. Angus has interrupted the natural life cycles of her Heteropteryx dilatata, Phyllium giganteum and Lophacris cristata (among many, many others) and created a sublime and cautionary narrative - an imposed provenance that epitomizes the human need to pursue, to possess and to control. In his 1931 essay, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting," cultural critic Walter Benjamin writes: "You have all heard of the people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or those who in order to acquire them became criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness… And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue." A Terrible Beauty, then, is a safe haven and a perilous place for both the collector and the collected.