Museum  December 19, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Beautiful Bugs: An Infestation of Insect Art

MFA, St. Petersburg

Usually, this many bugs in an art museum would result in an urgent call to the exterminator. But when Canadian artist Jennifer Angus is in town, an infestation becomes a thing of incredible beauty.

Using hundreds of exotic insect specimens from around the world, Angus creates intricate installations including wallpaper, tableau, and cabinets of curiosity. A life-long lover of bugs, Angus has been using this unusual medium for twenty years.

MFA, St. Petersburg

Her largest installation to date is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. For ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant’ and Other Stories, as told by Jennifer Angus (through January 5, 2020) the artist has created an immersive world of bugs. 

Filling several museum galleries, Angus’ works feature insects as everything from decoration to narrator. Aesop’s Fables, which often feature insects and other fauna as protagonists, are an inspiration for Angus, who wants us to pay better attention to creatures we may normally try and ignore.

Angus sources her insects from farms all over the world, including Madagascar, Malaysia, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea. The bugs are not endangered and are raised for exhibition in private collections and museums, arriving to the artist as dried specimens, ready to be pinned to the wall. After each installation, Angus carefully removes the bugs from their displays, returning them to storage for future use in other works of art. Some of her six-legged friends have been with her throughout the twenty years she has been creating these works.

Jennifer Angus, Animal Dinner Party, 2019.
MFA, St. Petersburg

Jennifer Angus, Animal Dinner Party, 2019.

Jennifer Angus installation featuring Victorian dollhouses covered in beeswax.
MFA, St. Petersburg

Jennifer Angus, Green Gallery installation, 2019.

Jennifer Angus, Animal Dinner Party (detail), 2019.
MFA St. Petersburg

Jennifer Angus, Animal Dinner Party (detail), 2019.

Angus’ work draws on the aesthetics of the Victorian era, a time when cabinets of curiosity and insect collecting were in vogue. Her materials and themes both serve as momento mori—a reminder of the inevitably and ever-presence of death. Angus hopes to bring attention to the important role insects play in ecosystems and life cycles, and how they are threatened by climate change and ecological destruction.

MFA, St. Petersburg

At the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Angus invites us to an Animal Dinner Party, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, where a variety of taxidermied animals are the dinner guests rather than the dinner. Elaborate designs created with insects adorn the walls, their beautiful patterns from afar drawing us in to reveal the even more impressive natural coloring of the insects themselves. Angus does not alter the color of the specimens she uses, opting instead to let their natural tones shine.

Another gallery has been transformed into a cabinet of curiosities, where insect vignettes illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins. In yet another, Victorian dollhouses on stilts have been coated in beeswax, creating an otherworldy village for us to visit in.

Angus first drew mainstream attention for her installation in the Renwick Gallery’s wildly popular Wonder exhibition in 2015. After eight months, the museum had reportedly seen a record-breaking 732,000 visitors, greatly increasing the newly reopened museum’s national profile. Angus’ In the Midnight Garden, which, along with the nine other installations in the show, was a big hit on social media, featured over 5,000 bugs set against pink walls that were painted using a traditional insect-based pigment.

Increasingly in demand, Angus, who is a Professor of Textiles at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, continues to spread her love and appreciation for bugs around the world through exhibitions and a recently published a young adult novel, In Search of Goliathus Hercules, which tells of the adventures of a Victorian boy who can speak to bugs.

“The fear we have of insects is generally unwarranted,” says Angus. “Their role in the environment is vital [to human survival], whether it be in the pollination of flowers, which in turn produce the fruits we so enjoy, or the decomposition of matter. Insects are both beautiful and essential.”

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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