Jennifer Angus: Super Bugs

Canadian artist Jennifer Angus fills entire rooms with beetles and bugs. Inspired by the ability of pattern to function as a type of language, her intricate work involves thousands of dried insects, pinned to gallery walls. From a distance many of her installations simply look like patterned wallpaper or textiles. Closer inspection reveals the slightly unsettling reality of her unique materials. Angus purchases the insects she uses from ecologically sound businesses that take a sustainable harvest of insects from the protected rain forests of tropical regions such as Thailand. Jessica Hemmings spoke to Angus about pattern, insects and another unusual source of inspiration for her work: children’s literature.

JH: How did you become interested in textiles?

JA: I have a life long interest in pattern. I studied textiles at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (Canada) and in between my BFA and MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I lived in the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific and then travelled in Asia. I spent a long time in Thailand and have made many trips back because I became interested in the region’s indigenous textiles. I set about photo-documenting the region’s traditional dress, which is now an important record as things have changed so dramatically in the past twenty or thirty years. Pattern is used in such a sophisticated and particular way in Thailand. It can communicate ethnic identity, marital status, even an individual’s village. I believe pattern has the potential to communicate and function as a language. That has really been the premise for my work.

JH: What first triggered the transition from textiles and pattern on cloth to using insects to create pattern?

JA: Coming from Canada, as a child and young adult I had no exposure – other than butterflies – to insects that were beautiful. Everything in my experience was black or brown and bit or stung so I was not enamoured with insects! In Thailand I discovered green metal beetle wings being used to embellish a shawl. This captured my imagination. A second pivotal incident was a residency I had in Japan in 1995. Three little boys, about the age of ten, would visit my studio and saw me working with insects. We had no language in common, but we did have this common interest. Everyday, after school, they would stop and show me what they had caught on their way home and my studio became a little mini-cemetery of these bugs! For their amusement I decided to do something with all the beetles they were leaving and made little paper kimonos and set the insects up on stands. Essentially I was anthropomorphising them.

JH: It sounds magical in a bizarre way.

JA: One of the things I realised was that children take delight in insects. They are inquisitive and curious and it made me think of children’s stories. James and the Giant Peach, for example, is a wonderful story in which his insect companions save him. In children’s literature we have a soft spot for insects, but we go through adolescence and then insects become “dirty”. I spent a lot of time thinking about the joy and wonder we have as children. One of the things I hope people will experience with my installations is the wonder we experience as children.

JH: Narrative seems to be an important element of your installations?

JA: I grew up loving stories. My mother would read us stories; even better she would tell us stories. In my practice stories did not emerge until “Goliathus Hercules” at John Michael Kohler Arts Center. I began to think about the prestige of collecting and decided to take on the persona of the “intrepid insect collector”. “Goliathus Hercules”, [which is constructed from a number of insect parts] is my discovery! Again, I was influenced by the Victorian era when hoaxes were quite common.

JH: Each installation seems to represent an engrossing and overwhelming experience – something that carries you along in the way that a good story carries you along.

JA: I’m glad you mentioned that. Some people think that my work is about collecting and yet it is impossible to collect it because each installation is ephemeral. If you were lucky enough to be there and see it, you can take away a mental picture. But that it is all you can take away, like the memory of a good book. To me, that is what makes it very special: each installation exists only as long as your visit.

JH: Thank you.

Embroidery Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2008: 14-17)