WONDER Artist Interview: Jennifer Angus

Artist Jennifer Angus uses brilliantly colored insects in her thought-provoking installation, In the Midnight Garden, on view through May 8 in the exhibition WONDER. Eye Level had a chance to catch up with Jennifer and ask her about her work, the importance of insects to the natural world, and even to take a peek into her closet.

Eye Level: How do you define Wonder, and has it changed since you installed your work at the Renwick?

Jennifer Angus: I notice that Wonder has a capital so I guess you're asking about the exhibition but even with a small "w" I think the answer is the same. To me wonder is that "wow" moment that catches you unexpectedly. Wonder is something greater than surprise because hours, days, weeks and months later you recall it and it still continues to inspire and amaze.

I can't speak for the other artists in the show but wonder has always been central to my work. If people walk into the gallery and say, "Wow! I've never seen anything like this before" then I feel a sense of accomplishment. I think this feeling is relatively rare nowadays. We are inundated with information constantly and we know so much more compared to earlier generations that in many ways we're a bit jaded. It's hard to amaze people any more.

EL: What first came to your mind when you saw the empty galleries?

JA: When I walked into the space I had a feeling of faded grandeur. It's a beautiful building but layers of paint and faux finishes were masking its true beauty.

EL: What were the challenges/rewards of filling/occupying the space?

JA: Initially, I was asked to create a proposal for the octagon room which is currently housing the 3D-printed model of The Greek Slave. This space presented a lot of challenges because it has 3 doors, a window, wainscoting and the width of each wall was just 10 feet. I was also aware that the Chihuly chandelier would be hung from the ceiling so there were so many competing elements!

Eventually, I ended up in the space I'm in, Gallery 206. Apparently this is the smallest gallery but it worked well for me. There are no windows and the high ceiling allowed me to create a space in which the viewer really feels engulfed and surrounded by both the magenta color and the insects. It's the only gallery in this show in which the walls are anything other than the standard grey so it's very memorable for that reason alone.

When I was installing, the high ceilings meant that my assistants and I spent a lot of time on the genie lifts —up and down, up and down. We're used to spending time on ladders but we'd never been this high up. After awhile we forgot that we were in a little cage suspended 15 feet in the air. I enjoyed the view from up there and the installation looks quite different. I wish everyone could see that view.

EL: You've taken the natural world indoors. Can you talk about the process?

JA: My work has gradually been moving towards stronger ecological concepts. The title of my installation at the Renwick Gallery, In the Midnight Garden, in fact refers to the symbolic Doomsday Clock. The "Clock" is an indicator of man's proximity to global disaster whether it be in the form of environmental catastrophe or outright war. Currently the Clock is set at three minutes before midnight. My use of pattern at the Renwick was strategically employed to imply man's desire to control nature, but the pattern breaks imply the futility of this effort. Skulls composed of hundreds of weevils and small beetles are the pattern's central motif. Throughout history, the skull image has been a universal symbol of man's mortality. My use of this potent icon was intended to suggest man's fragility or ephemeral state on this planet. We need insects to survive. They pollinate flowers that, in turn, produce fruit. The world is starting to wake up to the devastating tragedy that awaits us all if colony collapse, the death of millions and millions of honeybees, goes on unabated. The role of insects in decomposing matter is not to be underestimated either. Our world would become a massive rubbish heap without insects, and the human race would no longer exist.

I colored the walls with a dye produced from a little known insect called cochineal. Cochineal was initially one of the most important dyes in the world, generating colors that range from orange to deep red to purple. It is a type of scale insect (as are lice) found in Latin America. Red has always been one of the most difficult colors to achieve with natural dyestuffs, and so it was highly prized. Since the advent of chemical dyes, cochineal is infrequently used to dye cloth (except by natural dye enthusiasts).

I always study the gallery floor plan carefully. I have a picture of each insect to scale on my computer and in Photoshop work out my design. This is important for practical reasons because I need to know how many insects to bring to the site. The planning of an exhibition can take quite a long time as I run through the possibilities. The physical installation typically takes a week to ten days depending on the scale, complexity and how much help I have.

EL: What's next, and has it been shaped by your WONDER experience?

JA: The exhibition at the Renwick and my use of cochineal in some ways brought me back to my textile roots. It is in this direction that I see myself moving forward in my research and studio work. At the University of Wisconsin I teach textile design, specifically in the area of dyeing and printing. Each year I instruct students on using cochineal, but my own passion in the field has primarily focused on technical and conceptual aspects of repeating pattern. My use of this ancient dye for an important project has sparked my interest in what some might remark was staring me in the face all along —another insect product— silk, the fiber produced by the larvae of Bombyx mori, the silk moth.

In the summer of 2014, while visiting cochineal dyers in Mexico, I also journeyed to two remote villages in the mountains of Oaxaca where people are engaged in silk production from an indigenous moth species. Artisans complained that the local silkworm did not produce nearly as much silk thread as an Asian variety the Mexican government has at times distributed to local farmers. Instantly I wanted to investigate. However it occurred to me that despite my interest in insects and textiles and also years spent earlier in my career in Thailand, I have never invested in the obvious, silk.

While I anticipate continuing to create installations with insects which explore issues related to pattern and the environment, I would like to make further connections to textile traditions through the use of cochineal, silk cocoons and silk fabric in my projects. Part of the investigation would include traveling to India, China and Thailand. This would give me the opportunity to research the production of silk which includes the care and cultivation of silk worms/cocoons, the reeling of silk thread, dyeing, weaving and print techniques in regions known for their mastery of textiles and silk in particular. Reflection upon primary research will provide new inspiration to develop and produce thought provoking exhibitions which explore man's relationship with nature.

Angus' Bug Coat

The dresses Jennifer Angus designed for the opening of WONDER.

EL: People are still talking about the exhibition-themed dress you wore to the opening. Can you talk a little about it, and of course, share a photo!

JA: Haha! Everyone knows that I teach textile design so there was no way I could show up to the opening without wearing a dress, the fabric of which I had designed myself. Since there were two VIP dinners I made two dresses. First, I hand painted the silk fabric with dye and then screen printed a design I had created earlier for a wallpaper project actually. That's partially why the motifs were so large but I felt it worked. It's funny, I print fabric all the time, mostly as demos in class. I have piles of fabric but I don't make anything from it very often. This was a fun project for me and it showed my students that their professor can actually finish something!

Watch a video of conversation between Jennifer Angus and Smithsonian entomologist, Seán Brady. In the Midnight Garden closes on May 8. If you haven't seen it yet, hurry. The clock is ticking! Learn more about the schedule for installations closing in WONDER.