Written by Catarina Fontoura . 06 March 2013
Mike and Doug Starn are identical twins and American artists born in 1961. Their work deals conceptually with photography and they are concerned largely with ideas of chaos, interconnections, time and physics. According to Demetrio Paparoni, who wrote the critical text ‘Tree of Life’ (in the book ‘Attracted to Light’ by Doug and Mike Starn), the Starn twins, like Renaissance artists, consider art to be an instrument to know the world and this view implies a relationship between Art and Science.
‘Attracted to Light’ (published as a book in 2004) is a series of photographs of winged nocturnal insects – moths – that, in the context of the work, serve as a metaphor for a reflection of light. For the Starns, light is everything: “light is power, knowledge, it is want we want, it is what we need, it is satisfaction, fulfilment, truth and purity.” They see the moth’s attraction to light (phototropism) as a spiritual quest that all of us might undertake at some point in our lives: “we are all moths.”
‘Attracted to Light’ is part of a larger group of artworks called ‘Absorption of Light’ that was exhibited in Stockholm in 2005. The exhibition, featuring eight monumental photographs, was illuminated by a single, blinding, carbon arc lamp of about 45,000 watts raised 13-foot in the air. This radical installation format emphasizes the importance of light in the Starns’ work. Light not only becomes part of the work itself, but it is also the central piece, allowing (or demanding) the photographs to orbit around it as the planets orbit around the sun. The photographs and the lamp become one colossal homage to the existence of light.
The two moth portraits in the exhibition are vivid – and disconcerting so – by virtue of their monumental scale. The scale allows us, together with the immersive artificial light, to see ourselves existing in the moths’ scale. This uncanny effect is exalted by the tactility of the Thai Mulberry paper the photographs have been printed on, the texture of which is reminiscent of the texture of a moth’s wing, extremely fragile and dusty. The fragility of the art objects and of the insects reminds us in equal measure that light can be divine but also mortal.
Mike and Doug Starn’s website: www.starnstudio.com
18 February 2013
E. O. Wilson is one of the foremost biologists of our time and he draws our attention to the little things that rule the world.
As an entomologist, he makes links between the insects and the endangered fauna and flora of our planet. He points out that, if insects were to become extinct, the environment on Earth would quickly fall into chaos, resulting from the extinction of the unpollenated plants.
Whereas people need insects to survive, insects don’t need people.
If the human race were to disappear, it would be highly unlikely that any species of insects would become extinct, with the exception of three kinds of louse that survive only on the human head and body.
It’s a curious fact that the total number of ants on the planet could be as many as 10 thousand billion, and they weigh almost the same as 6.5 thousand million human beings.
And, E.O. Wilson ponders, does anyone believe that these tiny creatures only exist to occupy space?
Catherine Chalmers : ‘The Leafcutters’
Written by João Bento
Catherine Chalmers is a self-confessed admirer of Edward O. Wilson’s studies about ants. ‘The Leafcutters’ is the name of her new project about the leafcutter ants, genera Atta colombica.
The leafcutting ants, such as the Atta, cut and harvest the live plant material that is the basis of their diet. Millions of workers inhabit huge subterranean nest structures with hundreds of interconnected fungus garden chambers. The harvesting process is only possible by means of cooperation and division of labour among the individuals. Leaves are cut by some workers and dropped to the ground for further fragmentation. This material is then transported into the nest by other workers where it is taken to the garden chambers to decompose. Catherine Chalmers’ photographs look at this complex behaviour in an aesthetic away.
Her photographs are divided into four groups: ‘Antworks in Progress’, ‘Antworks’, ‘Offerings’ and ‘War’. The photographs from ‘Offerings’ (some of which we are showing here with this post) are well-lit, close-up shots of ants transporting fragments of plants, photographed against a white background. Captured this way, we can fully admire the body of the ants – their physical prowess! – and observe with detail the interesting and beautiful vegetation they carry.
Chalmers made five trips to Central America between 2007 and 2012 to photograph and film the Atta. The result is a multimedia piece that comprises photographs, videos, drawings and sculptures. Her work premiered last summer at DeNovo Gallery in Idaho and it is currently being shown at Imago Galleries in California.
Catherine Chalmers’ exhibition catalogue, printed by DeNovo Gallery, can be consulted at Fauna & Flora Library: faunaandflora.org/library/
You can see more of Catherine Chalmers’ work on her website: catherinechalmers.com/
Ilda Teresa Castro is a Portuguese researcher in Ecomedia and Animal Studies. She is also the proud owner of five beautiful cats.
Written by Catarina Fontoura . 04 February 2013
‘Silence of Breath’ was shot in a summer evening at Fuji Safari Park in Japan. Mountains such as Fuji are so large that they create their own weather. According to Yoko Naito, “near Mount Fuji there is often a very strange weather – I could not see five meters ahead of me because of the very thick fog”. This is probably what separates Yoko’s images from other images of animals – the intense fog that helps to create an unreal scenario. The creatures are peaceful yet assertive, they appear to be aware of the strange, silent fog and seem to be waiting for it to clear away.
“I could hear the breath from the animals
They won’t say anything to us.
They stare at us in the silence of breath”
The artificiality of the habitat Yoko photographed, the safari and the fog on that summer evening, make us aware of the unfeeling eyes of the creatures, a sensation that does not leave us until the last picture. The title refers to something not immediately visual – the breath – and this makes us think about our other senses and, certainly, it changes the way we see the thick fog. Because of this title, we can feel and hear the breathing of the big mammals and imagine the fog as an extension of their existence.
Yoko Naito is a Japanese photographer based in New York. Amongst other things, she is concerned with concepts of landscape and nature.
Yoko Naito’s Website: www.yokonaito.com
Written by João Bento . 31 January 2013
The photobook ‘Cityscapes + Birdmen’ by Jacquie Maria Wessels was published by Voetnoot in 2010. The book presents a large collection of colour photographs, 160 in total. As the title of the book suggests, the work is about (bird)men and city streets, in this case in the former Dutch colony of Suriname. Photos of streets alternate with photographs of men, creating a layered portrait of Suriname’s culture and society.
The cityscapes were made in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. The photographs show the walls of all sorts of buildings decorated with typical, hand-painted advertisements. The men were photographed both in Suriname and in The Netherlands where many Surinamese now live. These men are involved in songbird competitions known as Caged Bird, the most popular sport in Suriname.
Jacquie Maria Wessels’ photographs are serene. She favours formal portraiture made with daylight and indirect flashlight. The landscape shots mimic that process. Some images are colourful, specially those showing the advertisements, but not intense. There is an unexpected symbiotic relationship between the portraits and the landscapes and, purely on a visual level, it is the single photographic strategy that makes the two subjects sit together.
One of the aspects that got our attention was the presence of motorized vehicles in many of the photographs, specially in the portraits of the birdmen. Clearly these men might travel some distances to get to the competitions, so they arrive in an assortment of vehicles – cars, trucks and small engine bikes. Through Wessel’s images we can see that although the cars are of some importance, the pride they have in their vehicles does not reflect the immense pride that they have in their birds.
Jacquie Maria Wessels’ ‘Cityscapes + Birdmen’ can be consulted at Fauna & Flora Library: www.faunaandflora.org/library/
Written by João Bento . 14 January 2013
Melanie Stidolph’s ‘The Fall’ was first exhibited in November 2012 at the Campbell Works gallery in London. Fauna & Flora had the privilege to be present at the private view and we really enjoyed the work on display. There was a darkroom where images of apples falling from trees were being projected onto the wall. We had seen one of these images before but we didn’t know, until Melanie explained to us, that the apples had been dropped for the camera… and that is fine, because the images’ readability doesn’t depend on capturing some kind of truth about the moment when apples fall from branches. In fact, knowing that the apple photos had been set up and made with the help of a motion trigger device helped us unpack and understand the rest of the photos in the show. Each photo resulted from a similar act of experimentation where objects (including apples!) were thrown in front of the camera. Confronted with the apple photos, maybe most people would think about the story of Sir Isaac Newton that led him to define The Universal Law of Gravity. The photos with the flying darts made us think about Man’s general ambition to fly and the photos with the eggs could eventually make us think about the origins of species… Maybe that is thinking too much and this wasn’t even remotely the photographer’s ambition, but the photos are indeed very good at making us feel the tensions created by the object-camera experiments. We can imagine Melanie having fun developing this project, curious about the response in articulation between gesture, object, trigger device and camera. Similar kinds of experiments and curiosity were behind the invention of photography and, in this way, Melanie Stidolph created ‘The Fall’.
The exhibition was accompanied by a publication on Melanie Stidolph’s work. The publication is available to be consulted in our library: www.faunaandflora.org/library/
Please visit Melanie Stidolph’s personal website, it has many great works to see!: melaniestidolph.com
Written by Catarina Fontoura . 08 January 2013
Laura Bell is a North-American photographer, interested in subjects that have been central in Arts History since Pre-Historical times, when art was above all, an artefact.
The Still Life, The Vanitas (with it’s ancestor Arts Moriendi, from the medieval culture), The Memento Mori, meditations on life and death, the Landscape and the single Portrait are constant in her projects.
The work of Laura Bell has a strong connexion to Flemish Painting in the 16th and 17th century, where objects, nature and light have a symbolic meaning. In Bell’s photographs, Nature is one of the means to express life as an ephemeral, transitory and mysterious phenomenon.
Symbols are a way to communicate; they are signs of abstraction in a complicated world. In the history of western paiting, we can find several of Bell’s signs: the skull, the cadelabro, the feather and the glass. These coexist, together with many other as quotations but also as individual metaphors and interesting objects in ‘The Alba Series’, one of Laura Bell’s projects.
She continues to develop her work further, and keeps her website always up to date. We urge you to take a look.
Fauna & Flora: We are very interested in your use of natural elements. Can you tell us a bit more about this? You separate these elements from their usual environment and relocate them. Why?
Laura Bell: The natural world has always had a big influence on my work. I attribute this partially to my childhood, growing up in rural West Virginia. My father is a scientist who spent a lot of time teaching me about the scientific classification of plants and animals as a child. One of my favourite activities was cataloguing the insect species in local streams and rivers. I learned that the presence of certain insects would directly correlate to the water’s quality. A stream that was heavily polluted would contain more or less of a particular insect than a “healthy” stream. Although my photography is not scientific in nature, I believe these early childhood experiences have informed the content of my work as an adult. I also think that my tendency to remove “natural elements” from their environment is in some way related to the practice of scientific study. For instance, I may take a moth that I’ve found and place it on top of a table to photograph it. This, in a sense, is my way of studying this insect. I’m studying this moth not for the purpose of scientific understanding, but for its less tangible, evocative qualities.
F&F: You use the animal skull as a reference to the use of the human skull in European painting in the 16th century. Does this have a special meaning for you? What is it you want to express when you “replace” a human skull with an animal skull?
LB: I was not trying to communicate anything specific in regard to the “replacement” of the human skull with a deer skull. For me, this image is reconciling two things: my desire to literally look at this roe deer skull (an object I found in a field outside Edinburgh) and my fascination with Scottish history. This image, like most of the still life work from the ‘Alba’ series, is a kind of hybrid between object documentation and historical symbolism.
F&F: In this specific photograph the use of light is very different from the previous tenebrous approach. Can you tell us why you chose to do that?
LB: My first attempt at this image was more akin to the momento mori approach – dark, moody lighting, with the skull resting on a dirty table. However, I found that the image wasn’t communicating my intent. I was interested in referencing the momento mori paintings to evoke a certain period in history, but not necessarily to communicate their symbolic content. I wasn’t interested in reminding humanity of its mortality – what I was trying to do was far less grand. So, in my second attempt at this image, I decided to go completely against the momento mori approach in terms of lighting and tone. The final photograph, with the skull brightly lit, sitting atop a flowered tablecloth and doily, is a much more effective image.
F&F: It is interesting to understand the references you make to art history, but it is even more interesting for us to interpret those moments when you try to distance your work from that strong reference. For example, one of these moments could be the introduction of insects into your photographs. Insects are rarely depicted in painting. Can you explain what motivates you to photograph them?
LB: The answer to this question may be disappointingly simple. I photograph objects or things that interest me. Take for example, the photograph ‘Moth Specimens’. As you point out, insects are not a common theme in the history of painting. Insects were depicted within still life paintings, but were rarely the main subject. However, I didn’t really take this into account when I made this photograph. I was fascinated by these moths (called five-spot burnets) that I found living in abundance in a field near my flat. They were beautiful, like little red jewels in the grasses of the field. I wanted to use them in a photograph. I didn’t really consider that this deviated from the tradition I was referencing.
F&F: You often use the table to show, or display, the subjects. The table is a man-made object. Does this means something specific to you?
LB: I think the use of a table puts the objects within a plausible context. In my experience, people generally accept an image of an object on a table. The table is the traditional stage for a still life to be “displayed”. If I were to see a still life arrangement on a bed, for instance, I would certainly first notice the bed and then the still life. I would ask the artist why they made a still life on a bed, and not consider the still life itself very critically. Also, I feel the table signifies human interaction with the object. When I see an image of an object on a table, I am aware that the object was placed there. If an object is presented in a void (say, just a black background), the image would read in an entirely different way.
F&F: How would you characterise your landscapes?
LB: When I make landscapes, I am generally trying to illustrate what a place feels like rather than what it looks like. Taking this approach into account, my landscape work tends to be slightly removed from reality or leaning towards the sublime. The circular format is something I developed fairly recently in my landscape work. What appeals to me about this format is how it changes the reading of the image. The circle narrows the image area, creating a “telescoping” effect. I think this really communicates that you are being shown a particular view. All photographs do this, of course, but the audience is not reminded of it so explicitly with the traditional rectangular format.
F&F: ‘The Long, Sad Season’ is a series about the mutability of nature. Nature changes everyday and, paradoxically when we look at the winter images in ‘The Long, Sad Season’, it seems that winter is so strong and confident that we get the feeling that it is going to remain like that, cold and white, forever. Winter seems an obvious choice for your work, which tends to be melancholic and meditative. Do you agree?
LB: I do agree! Ironically, I hate being cold and can’t stand winter. I’m willing to put myself through torture to get a good image, though.
Laura Bell’s Website: lbellphoto.com
Written by Catarina Fontoura . 08 January 2013
We recently talked with Spanish photographer Alberto Salván Zulueta about two of his most recent projects, ‘Views’ and ‘Bushes’. We asked him about his thoughts on the divide between Man and Nature that is evident in his work.
Fauna & Flora: How did you get started in photography and how have your interests changed over time?
Alberto Salván Zulueta: I started with photography’s intrinsic capacity for analysing what is in front of it. In my early work the aesthetic result was the main concern. But for some years now I have been interested mainly in exploring the medium of photography itself and what society thinks and feels about it.
F&F: Your project ‘Views’ looks at a duality in Japanese culture. On one side we have Japanese urban housing and on the other is “constructed nature” which is a tradition in Japan and reflects very much its culture and philosophy. Even in the “urban pictures” there is always the presence of nature. Would you say that this is a way culture has found to replace traditional relationships with the natural environment? And can you explain a little about the process of making this project and how you settled on a strategy to use?
ASZ: I believe that, in Japan, nature is an element that is deeply rooted in the culture. They have a very different understanding of it from those of us in the West, for example. Nature, and how we relate to it, affects every aspect of their culture you can think of – religion, culture, the arts, cuisine, folklore…
When I was visiting Japan and wondering how I could put together a project around these ideas, I was torn between making work about nature – so respected, worshipped and present in society – or about the city – frenetic, labyrinthine, exhaustive yet, at the same time, in almost every corner silent and even peaceful. It seemed an odd contrast.
Besides nature’s manifestation of exuberance and “happiness”, evident in some places where it is able to develop freely and in peace, we can also find it loved and cared for in any corner, even within the city, where it grows shyly but persistently. I have studied and admired Japanese etchings and other works of art, culture and folklore, etc. In all of them, in different ways – whether obvious or discreet – nature was present and in some way was always a main element.
In Europe’s art and religion we have always had references to nature, but these have always been symbolic references linked to the usefulness of nature to Man. In the Renaissance, for example in the work of Fra Angelico or Patinir, the landscape or natural world begins to gain importance within the artworks. This development is even more marked in the subjective and sublime landscapes of Romantic painting. Nevertheless, such representations are always connected to utilitarian, anthropocentric perceptions of nature.
Looking at classic Japanese etchings, nature is always a central element. Even so, the images always play with that humanity/nature relationship. In the celebrated artworks known as ‘Views’ (showing paths, cities, landscapes…) there is always a human presence and there is always a presence of nature. Regardless of who or what the principle subject is, the pairing of human with the natural world is a constant. Nature (the original habitat) and the city (the habitat created by Man) are in every way dependent on, and necessary for, each other.
In these etchings I observed that this duality is approached robustly, to the extent of using a “formula” that imposes nature or its elements through graphic or synthetic elements. Doing so, however, doesn’t take away from the human point of view, it highlights the action – or the unique trace – of nature.
From this idea I started to think about the idea of diptychs: transforming two images into one. A good way to show the rupture between nature and the city, between the original, and essential, habitat and any other. It can illustrate the synthesis of a culture that remains equidistant between tradition and modernity. I wanted to show, in a physical way, the collision or conflict between those two aspects, between the natural and the urban. This conflict is very much present also in the local inhabitants. These contradictions and their outward signs are largely responsible for shaping the attitudes and positions of the people that outside agents, like ourselves, reduce to citizen and culture.
Perhaps I wanted to look at the changes of roles in today’s society which relate to nature and to the city, which are in any case dependent on each other.
F&F: In the project you did in 2010 ‘Bushes’ there is somehow an analysis of the morphology of different bushes. What led you to do this project?
ASZ: The project ‘Bushes’ is an aesthetic approach to details in nature that are usually overlooked because they don’t have any “anthropological value”. In this case, I use photography (or “art”) as a tool to reconsider and analyse our environment.
Through photography, the subject is raised and accorded “anthropocentric value” – both physically (as a reality) and aesthetically (as an image, a formal configuration).
F&F: What are you working on at the moment?
ASZ: I have been working on something for more than a year. I am manipulating images and trying different ways of doing it. I am hoping to avoid unifying the series in a thematic way, as I have been doing with other work until now. I am using images that I have made in different environments. I still have a lot of work ahead of me. I am very slow at developing my projects.
Alberto Salván Zulueta’s Website: www.abandonedrealities.com
Written by João Bento . 02 January 2013
We are very happy to tell you that the booklet ‘Monument’, by Dutch artist Mariken Wessels, is now available in the Fauna & Flora Library. The booklet is a beautiful object, one of the nicest we have ever seen. We always handle it very carefully and we have shown it to just about everyone. But what is there to see, exactly? Well, inside a translucent sheet you will find an A3 folded cover containing three papers with text by Basje Boer, combining prose and poetry. Along with this are fourteen loose, A3 colour prints of flowering plants photographed close up. They are photographed outdoors (and maybe indoors?) using available light. The plants are photographed from different points of view – sometimes against the sky and looking heroic, sometimes pictured against a rock as background. The differences between the images are many. You see flowers that are about to blossom, flowers dying and others that are already dead. You can feel the seasons change… In addition, the images have been significantly manipulated, altered in experimental ways that change the original, material qualities of the plants. It looks like Mariken has carried out all sorts of experiments with filters and inks. These experiments give the images a decisive force that seduces the viewer, forcing us to engage with the flowers and think about them in different ways. While preparing this text, we laid the fourteen photos out on the floor and they form a fantastic garden! And, just as the seasons change, this garden will transform and fade away as the photos are put back into their soft cover and the translucent sheet. And then the garden blossoms once more when we uncover the pictures again to look at the beautiful ‘Monument’ that Mariken Wessels has created. Thank you Mariken.
We invite you all to see Mariken Wessels’ project ‘Monument’. It is available to be consulted in our library: www.faunaandflora.org/library/
You can see other works by Mariken on her personal website: www.marikenwessels.com
Posted by João Bento . 18 December 2012
Exclusively for Fauna & Flora, David Chancellor has listed some of his favourite photobooks.
“I draw inspiration from many books, and miss them hugely whilst I’m away. Without doubt, currently my favourite is ‘Bagara’ by Ed van der Elsken. It was given to me by the designer Victor Levie that I worked with on ‘Hunters’ in Amsterdam. I am also extremely interested in the work of Peter Beard, his books ‘End of the Game’ and ‘Longing for Darkness’. David Goldblatt… his earlier work is extraordinary. I am currently looking at ‘Some Afrikaaners Revisited’ and ‘Photographs’. (I also like) Roger Ballen’s ‘Outland’, ‘River of No Return’ by Laura McPhee, ‘Dead Eagle Trail’ by Jane Hilton, Joel Sternfeld’s ‘Oxbow Archive’ and many others.”
- David Chancellor
Schilt Publishing has recently published the book ‘Hunters’ by David Chancellor. The book is a compilation of much of David’s extensive work about the hunting industry in Africa.
Written by Catarina Fontoura . 15 December 2012
“You see, I believe something goes wrong with Man when he cuts himself off from the natural world. I think he knows it, and this is why he keeps gardens and window boxes, and house plants, and dogs and cats and budgerigars.”
18 December 1965
in ‘The Animal Anthology’, 1967
Owen Harvey’s ‘Caged Living’ acts as a set of reflections on the simplest of human-animal relations. The flesh that unites us, in its indistinguishable texture and colour, appears as a powerful reminder of our shared condition. The confrontations of two images (Harvey calls them “couplets”) emphasise the absurdities of our relationships with other animals, and this seems to me to be a very effective strategy for introducing the subject. Although the rest of Harvey’s photographic work does not concentrate on the animal subject entirely, I must say this short essay is very successful for its vitality and sensibility.
Owen Harvey’s website: driveaway.tumblr.com