Most exhibiting artists’ gallery instructions are fairly straightforward: mount the painting at this height, install the sculpture using these fasteners, and so on. For an exhibit currently on display at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Matthijs Munnik’s instructions are a bit unconventional: they include a protocol for maintaining mutant C. elegans nematodes in petri dishes. Jennifer Angus’s include a request to preserve stray antennae, wings, and other specimens. And Ivana Adaime-Makac’s include how to replenish meticulously arranged ornamental and edible plant matter as it is consumed by house crickets.
“All Around Us,” curated by Ali Momeni, urges viewers to appreciate animals we’re largely conditioned to disregard, or worse—detest, fear, swat, kill. With projected video, glass sculpture, and dioramas, Momeni and the other exhibiting artists remind us that insects and arachnids outnumber humans by orders of magnitude and that their ecological significance cannot be ignored.
They’re beautiful to boot, Angus shows in “Justified by Love,” an installation made up of hundreds of insect specimens she has collected over the years. The specimens are arranged in patterns and pinned to the gallery walls alongside faux taxidermy, conjuring both a natural history museum feel and a more familiar, folksy aesthetic.
Munnik’s “Microscopic Opera,” meanwhile, asks viewers to tune into the movements of C. elegans in vitro. Magnified projections of the swimming nematodes appear on five panels above the temperature-controlled dome in which the animals are housed.
In “Le Banquet,” Adaime-Makac morphs asparagus, broccoli, and lettuces into cricket-scale trees and shrubs. Affixed to floral foam, these half-living structures serve to both house and feed the insects on display.
Momeni, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, enlisted local experts for two of his pieces on display.
Evolutionary biologist Nathan Morehouse and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh contributed high-resolution video of a male Habronattus pyrrithrix spider performing a courtship dance for a female. In a live demonstration this spring, this arachnid behavior was filmed atop a podium-mounted stage.
Apiarist Jeff Shaw assisted on “Observation Hive II,” a polycarbonate and fiberboard structure housing a large colony of bees that have access to the outside world via a cylindrical port affixed to a gallery window. Momeni said he plans to publish a plan so that others can construct similar indoor/outdoor hives.
The bees flying in and out of the third-floor hive—exchanging their enclosed, social environment for a bout in the city air—serve to remind viewers that many of the artists’ subjects are alive. While Momeni said the bee colony is relatively low-maintenance, some of the other installations require more attention and care. (The C. elegans dishes, for example, are switched out every two days.) The Wood Street Galleries management “has been really excellent about training their staff about dealing with the insects,” Momeni said. “The other really cool thing has happened with these pieces is that the gallery attendants and museum staff start to build relationships with these organisms.”
Momeni is working to bring the show to other cities. Galleries in Washington, D.C., and Minnesota have expressed interest in housing the exhibit, he said.
The artist added he hopes people who visit the exhibit reflect on the roles of invertebrates in their lives. The main takeway, Momeni said, is “that there are many forms of intelligence at many different scales of life.”
“All Around Us” is on view at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, through June 19, 2016.
Ali Momeni, Daniel Campos, Jeff Shaw, “Observation Hive II”