Bitten By The Same Bug: In The Garden At Shelburne

Jennifer Angus, "Memento Vitae, Memento Mori," 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

by Marta Pauer-Tursi

On the eve of New England’s fourth Nor’easter (with a fifth predicted), I am listening to installation artist Jennifer Angus speak about the insects, dirt and decay — yes, all those things we cringe at — that are the inspiration for her current exhibition at the Shelburne Museum. Angus is fascinated by bugs — their wispy wings, the intricate design of their antennae, the moiré-like sheen of their exocuticle and, of course, their function as integral participants in global ecology.

For most of us, that fascination with insects dissipates somewhere between reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and Kafka. Angus recalls fondly the joys of entering a natural history museum: those old glass cases, the creaky wooden floors and the scent of preservatives. Over her 20-year career, she has collected thousands of bugs for her art. Don’t imagine her in a pith helmet floating down the Amazon — she gets her insects from specimen dealers.

Angus’ current installation takes up an enormous maize yellow wall in the gallery. From a distance you might think, “What a beautiful design, so intricate, like Victorian wallpaper or a Tabriz rug.” As you near the wall, you realize that the motif is actually 30 frames, each encircling a glass dome containing an insect environment. More than 3,000 beetles, bees, grasshoppers and cicadas are pinned to the wall. The day I visited the gallery, a father and his young son were peering into one of the glass domes. The boy asked, “What are they doing in there?” The father considered the question and then proceeded with a charming fabricated narrative. Angus would have loved that reaction.

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