The Girl who Loved Insects

Lithops Dialogues in Diaspora

I realise insects have held a strong, if shifting, narrative all the way through my life. As a child I loved all forms of animal life. I had a rabbit as a best friend. I felt deeply hurt in incensed when I witnessed my brother burning ants with a focussed ray of sunlight through a magnifying glass and saw my mother casually crush snails underfoot because they were eating her plants. Teenager-hood shifted that empathy. I became ‘fearful’ of insects not out of a deeply held terror but more out of an adopted gendered response. I thought it appropriately feminine to yell for a family member to come and kill the insect I encountered in my suburban setting (now I was the killer). I am pleased to say, my family never took my urgent requests seriously, even to the point of laughing at me.

Choosing to study fine arts after leaving school, my degree show was all about the relationship between humans, insects and the city and I created hybrid, monster insect-city, insect-human fusions. I chose this subject matter partly because the particular cockroaches in my city centre existence were truly terrifyingly large, odious and suitably apocalyptic symbols. Those were dark days in the 80s. In depicting and sculpting cockroaches, I was partly trying to find a way to come to terms with living with them and also attempting to loose my fear of insects I had developed. The endeavour was partially successful, I love all insects except city cockroaches.

Hunt my Tongue

Intense focus on insects passed out of my life until seven years ago, when I found myself living a rural life engaged in an intense series of mythological, archetypal, photographic, naked self-portraits. I was unable to work during the cold winter months and developed a keen interest in the flowers of the fynbos growing all around me. I photographed every single species of fynbos flower that emerged painting with light in the dark of night, the same technique I was using for the self-portraits.

I became interested not only in the fresh flower in bloom but also how its form changed in the process of dessication and death. I noticed when the flower was dying, it was the most fertile time for the plant as the seeds are growing in the expanding ovaries. As my knowledge of flowers deepened, so did my powers of observation. I became aware of the close relationship between plants and insects and I began to image insects. Because my photographic process requires long exposures and working in the dark with a moveable light source, it necessitated the insect be still for many minutes at a time. An impossibility for any living creature. Death, a necessity for my technique, is also a theme extending through all of my work.

Mysterium Fascinans

Ever since I re-named myself Kali, at age 30 while living in Berlin, after the Indian Goddess of creation and destruction. Death, decay, waste and the darker more hidden aspects of life became threads weaving through all my creativity. At the age of 39, I witnessed the death of my mother due to cancer. I experienced that close to imperceptible moment when she just never took another breath. A moment so quiet, yet a moment that changed everything. (Before the undertakers arrived, I redressed her cold stiff rigor mortis body.)

I am interested in the impact death has on physical form. The death pose providing hints as to the final moments of life, whether they were traumatic, defensive, unexpected or peaceful. My real interest lies in bringing some life back into the inert form in a way that is honouring of the existence that particular being led. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, identified creativity as “the God-power in this world”. Finding ways to re-animate the dead through photographs can provide some hubristic power although I definitely put myself in the category of a fumbling demigod.

I hold all of life as sacred and never kill any form of life in my creative endeavours. They are all finds, gifts from friends, or in the case of larger animals, birds and snakes, tragic victims of roadkill. Roadkill is a sign of constant human encroachment on wild territory and spaces so there is less and less habitat for wild animals to survive. It is with such mixed feelings that I receive any animal killed on the road and it becomes an imperative for me to pay tribute to their lives. I do so through photography, re-animation into perpetual motion films and an alternative form of taxidermy that doesn’t involve any cutting.

Call of the Void

Providing a setting for my re-animated life forms, is where my work enters the theatrical. In this part of the creative process, I become the director of a play, staging a scene by placing the various “actors” (insects, plants, animals) in relationship with one another. Relationships that are more revealing of my own state of mind than any realistic reflection of what takes place in nature. The backdrop to my photographic theatre is our greater home, a view out into the universe, courtesy of the high resolution, Hubble Telescope, public domain astronomy photographs.

With more and more sophisticated technology, we are able to look deeper and deeper into matter and at the same time deeper and deeper into outer space. I find these opposing viewpoints we are able to expand into completely fascinating. In some small measure, it parallels my own bionic vision. I have one eye that focusses near with the other focussing in the distance. I had my eyesight medically restored from severe cataracts I developed in my mid forties. It was both comforting and frightening living in a misty, blurry world and my extreme attention to detail in all my photographs is testament to my continuing delight with my now sharp vision.

Ultimately I feel my work speaks to interconnectedness of all of life. the incredible balance and mutual interdependence of everything. I see a proliferating metamorphosing oneness that throws up infinite different reflections of itself. At the same there is a delicate balance between eveything which can be easily shifted. Humans are presently seriously upsetting this balance in their lifestyle choices which strip, poison and decimate natural resources in constant expansion and consumption. I see myself as a visual advocate on behalf of wild animals, plants and insects who are not able to communicate directly by themselves and so I hope that my images in some way touch people to appreciate the incredible beauty of fynbos flora, to find the smaller six or eight legged creatures fascinating, to see that wild animals have as much right to survival as we do as humans. In fact the mass extinction of other species will ultimately mean our own extinction as well.

Probing Fissures in Time and Reason

 

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The Girl who Loved Insects

Laugh out loud in the face of death

I feel like I have tunnel vision. I am busy compositing my images in photoshop, it is not my favourite process. It means day and night on the computer, shifting things a little bit this way a little bit that way, making them bigger making them smaller. It is a bit like editing a film when one is endlessly making cuts, one frame longer or shorter, shifting sequences here or there. It is fiddle precise and tedious. With all those millions of small movements day after day wears down your tendons and muscles in your wrist, elbow and shoulder. My shoulder rotator cuff was just recovering, almost a year later from my last intense bout of compositing, and now I’m wearing it out again.

When making long form documentaries which had budgets, I always had an editor. That was truly fabulous to have some one who could help you sort through the immense piled up knot of raw material you had and put it together so that you had a comprehensible, well paced film. You are always too close to the material to do a really good job yourself. How I wish I had an editor now who could sort through the thousands upon thousands of photographic images I have created and magically put them together into some wonderful composite image. Making films, I would be the control freak on the sidelines, saying do this, do that. My editors would invariably kick me out of the edit suite to go and have a break and get out of their hair. Upon my return they would have put things together in a different way but somehow it worked. With compositing stills, like editing movies, there seem to be no absolute rules. It requires fiddling and fiddling until an intuitive voice inside you says …yes that works.

I wish I had an editor now. But alas I have to fiddle on my own and it is driving me crazy. I look back on a day and realize I have only shifted a few items a little to the left, a little to the right, a little up, a little down. Made it a little bigger, a little smaller, rotated it a little clockwise, a little anti clockwise etc etc. There is no great sense of accomplishment. But like editing all those small adjustments create the final art work or film, otherwise all you have are unwatachbly boring long takes of raw footage and an endless stream of similar looking images.

I don’t know if someone else could create my art works but I would love to have the money to employ someone to try. I love creating the photographs. I find it deeply meditative too look so deeply at and into form, lighting it up from all different angles. This is when I get into the zone, when I find myself so present in the moment that all else falls away, where subject and object become fused into one beingness. It is such a peaceful, joyful, awake state of deep satisfaction that there is nothing that is needed nor wanted nor missing.

It’s hard to return to the everyday mind of needing and wanting, feeling like something is missing. I wish the zone could be a  permanent state but the harder I try to achieve it the further it moves away. Because it’s a state without striving and therefor not achievable.

During the tedious hours of editing, Ruby Wax has been keeping me in hilarious, witty, intelligent, mischievous company. I have watched just about every prankish interview she has conducted on the net and still have not tired or been bored. She has such chutzpah, pizzaz, bravery and clownishness but ultimately delivers a penetrating gaze into contemporary culture and the narcissistic ego, her own and those of her celebrity subjects. She is always surprising.

More recently Ruby Wax has become serious, studying the brain at Oxford and exploring depression, her own and that of others. I suppose her spritely, prankish self couldn’t last forever, or it would become caricature.

So I fiddle on endlessly with Ruby keeping me hilarious, dated company from her old shows. Even if my images are about death, one needs to laugh out loud in the face of the terminal.

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Laugh out loud in the face of death

It was a dark and windy night when I heard a strong, insistent tapping against the window. Sounds like it could be the beginning of a horror movie. But where I live, its only precious beautiful creatures that disturb me and in fact they don’t disturb me at all, even the biggest hairiest spiders and the most venomous snakes. Creature nature is not cruel or vindictive, just self protective.

I went to investigate the window tapping and found an enormous furry pink orange bodied moth desperately wanting to enter into the light of the kitchen but the clear glass was the invisible obstacle. It was hitting the window with such force and its attempts were increasing and becoming more and more frantic, it even became a bit frightening, I had to remind myself I was looking out from the safe inside. When the moth remained still for a brief moment, I could see that its wings were completely ravaged, they were hanging off in tatters. It was like someone had taken a knife to a kite and gashed it up into uneven strips. The kite would be able to fly for a bit but the crash was inevitable. This moth was hitting the window with such vehement, violent life force, death could only be hovering nearby.

I considered for a moment opening the window and letting the battered moth in. But then i remembered from past experience that one has a kamikaze missile the size and force of a small bird inside one’s house. It is unsettling, and disturbing. I turned off the kitchen light to give the moth some rest in preparation for its journey into the spirit world. I made a mental note though, to go and find the moth in the daytime, I doubted it would stray far from the window, the night was too icy and windy.

The following day I remembered to search for the moth and found it clinging to the wall beneath the window, with its shredded wings. What a body it had, furry pinkish orange with dark yellow feelers. It had big black purple balls of eyes, that seemed to unflinchingly look into me ogling its form and wishing for it imminent demise.

A small perfectionist part of me was disappointed that such a fine specimen had ruined its own exquisite wings (the confusion of artificial light being the other culprit) . The bigger, deeper part of me knew the moth was perfect. The ravages of time and life having torn its wings ragged. A potent, if mournful symbol.

I forgot about the moth and it didn’t flap at the window again. The following day on my way to my vegetable garden, I saw the moth on its back on the grass. I picked it up hoping that the panther cat wasn’t responsible for this death, in particular because he damages the form in the process. The moth appeared perfectly intact. It was such a gift. Usually i only find the moths after a few days and by then dust, hairs and spiderwebs are stuck to their bodies and feelers like velcro and they can only be removed virtually in photoshop.

I immediately set about organising the moth into a pose in order to create a good photograph. I arrange the legs, the feelers, the wings by pinning them in position on cardboard. I never pierce the form with the pins, as one can see the holes in the close up photography. I managed to get the moths legs closer to its chest and get the feelers to lie flat. One of its lower legs had already gone into rigor mortis and was almost impossible to change its angle. Moths are also very hard to work with because the more you touch them the more they loose their beautiful metallic, glowing dust on their wings and the hairs of their body.

I was about to put the pinned down moth in the fridge, when i accidentally brushed the extremity of its abdomen with a pin and its abdomen moved. It had two flap like appendages at the bottom of its body and these two flaps opened when touched and then slowly relaxed back together again when left alone. A creeping sense of horror overcame me. Had i pinned down an alive moth? I touched other parts of the moth, the legs, the feelers, the wings, it didn’t stir. But every time i touched the lower abdomen, it creepily responded.

I put the moth in the fridge, hoping that the cold would bring about its final passing. I have heard dying from cold makes one pass peacefully by falling asleep and never waking up again.

It became my daily routine to see if the moth abdomen had stopped moving when i touched it. Each day it contracted to the touch, without any other part of the moth having moved. It was pinned down but in a way that it could have moved a leg a wing a feeler if it wanted to.

Finally after five days, i touched the moth abdomen and it felt hard and crunchy to the pin touch and there was no movement.

What an extended death, perhaps made all the more torturous by me. I tried to google about how long it takes for a moth to die. Why would its abdomen continue to move like that? I thought perhaps it might have been female and that the abdomen would move to expel eggs even after body death. But no such eggs emerged. This remains a mystery to me. One of the many mysteries I encounter on a daily basis in my interaction with insects animals and plants.

The moth holds deep symbolic significance for me personally. It feels like a mythological representation of the soul for the insistent way it persists on going to the light, even if self destructs and immolates on the flame or heat of the light. Is not release from the body a prerequisite for completely merging with the light? And what a bodily life a moth has, born as a juicy terrestrial worm only to dissolve itself into a magnificent winged creature of the air.

Here I have been playing with different compositions.

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