Sword-wielding insects run amok at the Redpath

In Amy Swartz’s art installation, bugs are the subjects of intricate tableaus

Monarch butterflies don’t typically have lion heads, right? In Pest, however, lion-headed monarchs are one of the many fanciful and creative characters brought to life by Toronto-based artist Amy Swartz. Moths, butterflies, wasps and bees are just a few of the insects featured in her intricately designed and elaborately illustrated tableaus. At first glance, the insects in her work appear to be displayed like any other museum exhibit, pinned under a glass casing. Upon closer inspection, the differences begin to emerge. Attached to the insects are pieces of figurines, such as doll and animal toy heads. Some hold swords or rifles while others have small limbs glued to their exoskeletons.

Through her work she wishes to encourage the viewer to question our controlling relationship to the planet and to each other, she said. Narratives of conflict and drama emerge as one observes the works more closely. Swartz said she drew inspiration from newspaper images, such as photos of protesters congregating during the Toronto’s Occupy Movement, and of crowds swarming Al Tahrir Square during the protests in Egypt.

Just as in these protests, the insects in the tableaus swarm and congregate, chasing each other in a frozen pursuit. “There are some compositions that are purely imaginary, however they all have basis in some conflict or chase,” said Swartz. “The idea that sometimes you don’t know who is chasing whom, or in some cases, kissing or attacking, is also interesting to me.” One of the most appealing parts of the tableaus is how, in many of the scenes, there is no clear emphasis on a single subject. Instead, the different players in the tableau come together to depict a scene of action and drama. In order to truly appreciate the work, the viewer must ensure they have noticed the diverse parts that compose the whole.

The way in which the overall chaos of the scene comes together to form a cohesive whole is reminiscent of the masterworks of French Romanticism art. Such masterpieces as The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault or Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix come to mind, where visual harmony can be seen in a chaotic scene. Swartz’s work uses the same complexity of action and drama, but with insects and toys as subjects.  

Pest had humble beginnings, such as with the creation of Moth Man, which features the the head of an army man attached to a dead moth. “It felt so stupid and so right at the same time, and from there I was compelled to create more absurd characters,” said Swartz. This isolated incident was the precursor to the swarms of redesigned insects that make up the tableaus.

The strength of the pieces lie in the details. The strange disposition is what initially catches your attention, as the insects are not all cleanly laid out as in other typical entomology displays. Instead they are jumbled, placed one on top of the other, fighting for the viewers’ attention.

Swartz will be giving a talk about her work at 11:30 a.m. during the exhibit’s last day, on Sept. 18 at the Redpath Museum. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

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