University of Western Ontario: McIntosh exhibit buzzes with colourful fusion of art, science

It’s been said that Earth without art is just, “Eh.” And that our world, without insects, would fall apart.

In the current McIntosh Gallery exhibit, Insect as Idea, art and insects converge to paint a poignant picture of the beauty in biodiversity.

The show “is a fusion of art and science,” said gallery curator Helen Gregory. “It examines insects within a multi-species framework, considering the role that they play throughout ecological systems, while also touching on the historical aspects of colonization.”

The idea of the exhibit was originally conceived by visual arts professor and director of museum and curatorial studies, Kirsty Robertson. Gregory collaborated with Nina Zitani, curator of the Zoological Collections in Western’s department of biology, to bring Robertson’s vision to life.

Global specimens

Central to the show’s theme is a display of insect specimens in historical Riker mounts, from a larger collection Zitani oversees and uses in her research and teaching. Zitani is hoping this public debut of the specimens will spark appreciation and awe, and for some visitors, a changed perspective.

“Insects have this reputation for being gross, ugly and disgusting,” she said. “But here’s an opportunity, through these museum specimens from Western’s collection, to see their beauty. Each Riker mount alone is beautiful, but when you put them all together like this, it really makes an impact. I also hope people will come away appreciating the diversity of insects. They are the most diverse organisms on earth.”

Insect Riker Mount Zoological Collections, department of biology, Western University. (Brian Lambert)
With some mounts dating back to 1928, the display features approximately 600 species from around the world, including those from south American rainforests, India, southeast Asia, north America and Africa. Among them, an endangered Himalayan species, which speaks to one of the show’s underlying messages.

“Insects in this case are treated as an indicator of ecological health, as measured by insect biodiversity, which, of course, sadly, is on the decline,” Gregory said.

Ecological artists

The exhibit also features contemporary artists whose practices have a strong focus on ecology, biodiversity, the environment and Indigenous worldviews. The works include a vibrant painting by Christi Belcourt, who intertwines bees, birds, strawberries, and other native plants to underscore the interconnectedness of living things within the natural world.

With his signature sense of whimsy, Jude Griebel takes inspiration from the sub-genre of Victorian art called, ‘anthropomorphic illustration.’ Through it, he imagines a tiny entomological protest against the current ecological crisis.

Artist Jennifer Murphy combines images culled from old nature books to create composite forms highlighting the complexity of ecological relationships.

Works by Carl Beam, Catherine Chalmers, Andrea Cooper, Aganetha Dyck, The Institute of Queer Ecology, and Amy Youngs round out the diverse and colourful exhibit.

“I love the broad appeal of this show,” Gregory said. “Anybody who’s interested in contemporary art will enjoy it. And, at the same time, there will be a lot of interest from lepidopterists.”

Gregory and Zitani will be joined by some of the artists on Thursday, May 12, for a virtual discussion on how their work has been influenced by environmental issues and multi-species ecologies.

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