Michael Abatemarco "Once Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly. ...
But he didn't know if he was Chuang Tzu who
had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly
dreaming he was Chuang Tzu."
Since the mid-19th century, the peppered moth has stood as an example of evolution through natural selection. Industrial pollution in England darkened the trees that were home to the light-colored moths, causing them to adapt over generations into increasingly darker moth populations. Jo Whaley's photographs of moths, butterflies, and other insects reflect her interest in such relationships between the natural world and the man-made world. One photograph in particular, titled Geometrid, recalls the peppered moth. In the image, a darkened wing rests against light-toned background, while the other wing, lighter in color, rests over a dark surface. After reading journalist Judith Hooper's book Of Moths and Men, which sparked controversy by criticizing the long-accepted science of the peppered-moth study, Whaley discussed the evolution of the peppered moth with experts.
"Different entomologists say that, indeed, the science of [the study] was not done as properly as they would have hoped," she told Pasatiempo recently at an Eastside coffee shop. "Nobody knows for sure; they just know that they have observed that the peppered moth has now gotten more white again as they've cleaned up that area," said Whaley, whose show at Photo-eye Gallery, opening Friday, Nov. 7, features images from her new book, The Theater of Insects. "Insects will change their coloring based on their surroundings."
Looking at the insects in Whaley's book is a journey of discovery and wonder at the rich variety of shape and color, the distinctiveness of each species, and the array of vibrant colors the insects exhibit. Insects have the ability to mimic their environment and effectively camouflage themselves to resist predation. Whaley plays on the idea of mimicry by creating staged insect portraits based on similarities of texture, shape, and color she sees between the insects and found objects. "All the backgrounds had to be man-made but altered by nature — weather, decay, oxidation. It's this notion of vanitas, that whatever man creates, nature takes back," she said. Whaley, who was once a scenic artist for the theater, is creating small-scale sets that often mimic the minutiae of natural landscapes. Her work calls into question the nature of the reality we see before us; we realize that what appears to be a satellite image of a lake in a desert landscape — a detail of her photo Papilio ulysses — could not possibly account for the scale of the insect resting upon it unless the image were a composite, and it is not.
Another image, Morpho deidamia, shows a remarkable similarity between the iridescence of the wings of a butterfly and what looks like an ice floe in the background. "That is a piece of metal that was burned," said Whaley, "and got that natural iridescence."
The scale of the prints is also deceptive. Many of the photographs are 31 by 27 inches, but as Whaley explains in the book, the scale of her sets is only about 5 by 7 inches. As it becomes clear that we are looking at wildlife not in a natural setting but rather in a staged and man-made one, another interesting fact presents itself: the life given these insects, as though they have just alighted upon the spot where she shot them, is purely a construct of the artist. They are, after all, pinned, lifeless examples from nature. Some have been gathered in the wild by Whaley herself; other, more exotic specimens, are from The Bone Room, a store in Berkeley, California, that specializes in natural-history items. The process Whaley uses in her studio of staging scenes calls to mind the practice of placing biological specimens in dioramas for museum exhibits.
Not all of the backgrounds in Whaley's photographs mimic natural features of landscape. Some include illustrations and text from pages torn from books. Toying with the notion of the camouflage survival tactic, a print titled Idea leuconoe shows three insects of that species arranged on a page of musical notation, the black lines and dots of their wings echoing the notes on the staffs. A similar photograph, Pareronia valeria, capitalizes on the idea of convergence based on shape: two butterflies, arranged to show the underside of one and the top side of the other, rest by illustrations of male and female pelvises in a page from an anatomy text.
"These two very separate elements are mimicking each other," said Whaley, "which then causes the viewer to compare those two disparate elements in their mind. It relates to that whole kind of gender opposite. Because of that, we start to look at, well, how is the pelvis different between a man and a woman — all in the guise of scientific illustration, which is a fiction, right?" The image recalls the morphological basis of Linnaean taxonomy, a classification system of living organisms that was developed by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, during the 18th century.
The Theater of Insects derives its title from older compendiums of natural phenomena, particularly the Insectorum Sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum, published in 1634 by Thomas Moffett, a physician. Whaley's book (published by Chronicle) features stylistic nods to older examples of artistic and scientific contributions to the body of knowledge about insects, such as antiqued type on title pages. And an included essay, "Spectacle of Nature," by curator Deborah Klochko, makes reference to Robert Hooke's observation of fleas through a microscope, relayed in his 1665 book Micrographia.
Entomologist Linda Wiener also contributed an essay to Whaley's book, in which she discusses the ability of insects to mimic their surroundings as part of an "aesthetic drive in nature." This idea underscores the notion that Whaley's purpose in creating these images is aesthetic and not scientific. Treating her subjects aesthetically while referencing those older works is a way of inviting the viewer to question whether science alone can represent the whole of reality.
Whaley's work refers to the history of photography as well. A series of 19th-century daguerreotypes, deteriorating portraits of men and women, are paired with butterflies in an allusion to the human soul. "What I learned from Linda, the bug lady, is that the ancient Greeks had the same word for butterfly as for soul," Whaley explained, "and that word is psyche. It gave me the idea to do this work, because if you think about how a caterpillar liquefies in one stage and then becomes this butterfly and then flies off — it's like crossing to the other side. Who knows where the soul goes? But one imagines it flying away from the decayed corpse."
Regarding how expertly Whaley matches the natural colors of the butterfly with staining on the old photographs and patterns in the clothing of the people in the images, it is easy to imagine that their souls might live on in these new, winged forms, content to alight on their old portraits and regard them like Chuang Tzu, recalling a distant and receding dream.
Jo Whaley: The Theater of Insects
Opening reception and book signing 5-7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7; through Jan. 10, 2009
Photo-eye Gallery, 376-A Garcia St.; 988-5152, Ext. 202