Firstly there was 'A Thousand Years'. A huge glass vitrine. Maggots hatch, develop into flies, feed on a severed cows head, stick to the congealing pool of blood leaving it pockmarked with fly-prints. Many meet their end on an insect-o-cutor, which sounds like a ridiculous and terrifying B-movie contraption. Others survive to continue the cycle. The eyes of the cow's head were wide-open and milky.
In the next room was a more aesthetically pleasing take on this life-cycle exploration. 'In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)'. White canvases are embedded with pupae so butterflies hatch from the paintings, fly freely round the room, feed on sugar water and flowers, mate and lay eggs. Then there is the more stationary version. 'In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)'. Which is pretty much just that. Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs laid out on tables surrounded by coloured canvases encrusted with varnished butterflies, and quite lovely for it.
Butterflies carry religious associations of resurrection. So symbolism dictates at any rate. 'Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven' is huge in scale. On arch-shaped canvases butterflies are arranged into patterns like medieval stained glass church windows. The triptych has a pleasing internal rose-like composition. Stunning against the white gallery walls. More arresting, however, is 'Black Sun'. A vast dark circle, the surface covered in clusters of dead flies that look like a paste of thick tar stuck with tiny insect legs.
From black to white. 'Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II'. A pale pastel disc-shape comprised of subtle butterflies displayed in circular patterns. The first part of the title is taken from Philip Larkin, who wrote that religion is 'That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die'. Though the poet that came into my mind as I walked through the butterfly rooms was Keats. In one of his many love letters to Fanny Brawne, he writes 'I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.' If we are to believe Jane Campion, Fanny opened her window to butterflies and trapped them in her room while she pined after her love.
In the centre of one of the butterfly rooms is 'The Anatomy of an Angel'. A white marble sculpture of an angel, but with a section of internal organs revealed, only visible from certain angles. In one of those sacred moments of poetic coincidence, I had started A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects only a couple of days earlier. These are two novellas, the first about the naturalist William Adamson, explorer and collector of insects, the second about Christian Mysticism and communicating with angels. I hadn't yet begun the second novella, but the first seemed particularly prescient . William collects insects and butterflies and can't help but compare their habits to those of humans. His love-interest, named Eugenia (which is also the name of both a rare butterfly and the novella itself - Morpho Eugenia) makes decorative displays using butterflies. Well, blow me over with a feather (or, indeed, butterfly wing), for Damien is doing just that. Eugenia tells William:
'I have made a beautiful display - a kind of quilt, or embroidery almost - out of the earlier specimens you sent my father. I have pinned them out very carefully - they are exquisitely pretty - they give a little the effect of a scalloped cushion, only their colours are more subtle than any silks could be.'
I don't think I'm giving anything away (well, perhaps I am) when I say that their marriage does not last (for it turns out that she is actually more taken with incest than insects) and he leaves on another expedition. Which leads me to think it may not be such a good idea to paper my walls in butterfly wings, as beautiful as that may be. I would only have to watch them then decay around me.
|Photographs courtesy of my gal-pal Frances|