Terrible Beauty

Stephanie’s launch last week was held at the Textile Museum of Canada and they had kindly opened the exhibits for wandering after the Harlot spoke. Sam grabbed me and told me I must see “the bug room”, so off we went to see what turned out to be an installation by Jennifer Angus called Terrible Beauty.

I was told that it is a look inside the mind of a Victorian collector* - of bugs specifically. Rooms flow into each other, each containing a small table with an old, wooden drawer-thingy filled with bugs. But the real collection is on the walls: designs made up of thousands of insects. And it was terrible and beautiful, both.

Terrible because of the bugs and not just the conditioned ick-factor (although some were alarmingly huge). One of the staff told us that they were insects farmed for this particular purchase – either there’s an explosion of bug-related art or she meant collecting in general. It hit the same button in me as fur does – I find it morally reprehensible to raise animals for the sole purposes of getting killed so that we can wear (or look at) something pretty. It wasn’t long, though, before my queasiness was swept away by the art of it.

First was the Flower Room. On light walls – a creamy yellow, perhaps? – bugs had been pinned in a design of flowers surrounding a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Maybe I’m suggestible, but I could almost see the room. I imagined it in a large manor house, flowers everywhere, French doors to the garden open allowing in the drone of bees in roses and the sweet-scented summer breeze. In a corner, a woman in a flowered muslin morning dress is dealing with her correspondence, the nib scratching across the paper.

In the India room, the insects are in the design of a sari pattern, on walls the colour of spices, warm and rich. And all of a sudden, I am no longer in the English countryside, but in a market in India, being bustled about, dizzy from the smells and sights. No more pastels here, everything is bright and intense and hot.

From there we wandered into the Egyptian Room. Here, the walls are a deep blue, bugs like ripples on water. I felt transported to a barge, floating down the Nile to Karnak. The cool breeze comes off the water and in the papyrus reeds along the shore a crocodile dips into the river with a soft ‘plop’.

Then comes the Japanese Room. The bugs are in shapes of stylised cherry blossoms on a delicately light wall. And here we are, in a Japanese garden in the Spring, cherry blossoms drifting like snow in the air. Just ahead is a wooden bridge across a small stream and in the near distance, a gazebo where a woman in a dazzling silk kimono is preparing a tea ceremony.

There were no cars or other modern things in my mind’s eye, not in any of the rooms – all were moments out of time, suffused with light, smells and sounds just beyond hearing. Stepping back from the walls took you back in time, going in close to see the detail on the bugs, unaltered, made you see the art in nature. Each room has different insects, large, small and in—between, fuzzy browns and light greens of the bodies, wings shimmering in the light with golden filigreed veins.

Breathtaking.

*There is a curatorial essay on the Museum’s site, which I haven’t read yet. I assume it may contain more accurate information than I have. I’m not sure I want to read it – my own interpretation was plenty magical and facts might interfere with that.

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