Searching for traces in the insect kingdom – Louise Schmidt

Dana Meyer’s SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION in the Interplay of Natural Appearance and Fictitious

Cylindrical and bulbous, compressed and elongated, with and without lids – dozens of jars in various shapes and sizes form a unique collection, standing individually but also stacked in groups. Their contents are equally horrifying and fascinating: insects. Seemingly still alive, these unusual beings creep and crawl within their glass prisons. Others, lying on their backs and extending their long limbs upward, appear like dead and already prepared specimens. The impression conveyed by Dana Meyer’s titled work series SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION is distinctly exotic. The shimmering armor of these diverse insects displays splendid colors: rich azure blue, radiant red interjected with black stripes, or iridescent metallic tones in gold and copper. Legs, antennae, and spines intertwine in a chaotic dance. Delicate wings, laced with fine veins, are seen either spread open or lying closely against the body, accompanied by varied mouth structures in the form of stinging and sucking proboscises or mighty jaws.

Alongside these exotic impressions, there arise some highly familiar ones. One of the insects recalls the common housefly, another seems reminiscent of an ant, and yet another resembles a typical rose or weevil beetle, such as one might have encountered crawling in domestic territories. However, Meyer’s creatures provoke bewilderment: the supposed ant’s body is peculiarly elongated. Instead of the usual three-part structure of head, thorax, and abdomen, it consists of multiple, sequentially arranged thoracic segments. The harmless fly, with its bristly, hair-like projections sprouting from its back and prominent, convex facet eyes, suddenly takes on menacing traits. Similarly, the beetle’s characteristics appear to be inverted: instead of a naturally tiny creature, it emerges here as a roughly 30-centimeter-sized pest, as if freshly sprung from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

The creatures appear deceptively real while their peculiar appearance raises astonishment. As an observer, one inevitably wonders if these could be actual existing animals. The finely detailed physiognomy of the insects lends credibility to the notion. The gracefully winding extremities and seamlessly connecting dorsal plates seem to embody forms that only nature could produce. The polychromatic, shimmering exoskeletons also act as evidence suggesting a natural origin. However, upon closer examination of the specimens encased in the jars, these considerations are shattered. The metallic sheen of their shells, initially reminiscent of chitin, ultimately points to the true material: metal. These are not natural creatures but rather artistic products of Dana Meyer.

The finely crafted sculptures by the artist attest to great craftsmanship. Unlike her massive sculptures, where individual metal plates must be heated by forge fire before being shaped, the process of creating the insects from thin sheets of steel takes place in cold conditions. Hammer and pliers serve as her tools, enabling her to extract the desired shapes from the material through deliberate strikes and bends, resulting in intricate and delicate structures. The formed parts are then welded together and become open to further experimentation with color and additional materials. Meyer’s final touches on her insects involve watercolors, oil paints, pigment dust, as well as wood pieces and fine lattice structures. As a result, the illusion of a natural history collection is created in the SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION, with highly realistic-looking insect specimens seemingly originating from distant regions.

The connection to nature is further emphasized on a linguistic level. Each jar bears a carefully inked label. The paper is blotchy and yellowed, already appearing old. Inscribed in German and Latin are the scientific names of the respective creatures, along with their taxonomic classification. Below this information follows the location of discovery and the year in which each was ostensibly captured. Far from dispelling the moment of astonishment, the labeled insect designations only intensify it. Meyer’s ingenuity is translated into language with a similar artfulness as seen in her insect sculptures. These small word creations carry an almost literary weight and are imbued with a poetic impulse: the Blue-tailed Damselfly and the Crescent Cicada, or the Hunchbacked Market Leech and the False Soldier Crane Fly; equally masterful are the designations Chauvinistic Green Snout Beetle and Violet Dragon Neck. Although these lyrical and whimsical names may seem initially detached from reality, they, like the creatures themselves, to some extent refer to real-world realities. The systematic labeling recalls entomology, the study of insects. Given the existence of thousands of insect species, some entomologists have had to exhibit creativity in naming, leading to mellifluous designations such as the Andromeda Lace Bug, the Chaste Parasitic Bumblebee, or the Blue-green Mosaic Bluet.

A subtle web of elements both realistic and distant is woven into the artist’s work series, playfully challenging the imagination of the observer. What is real and what is invented? This question becomes more pointed when considering the locations and dates indicated on the labels. According to these labels, the specimens were collected between 1906 and 1910 on the islands of the South Pacific. This juxtaposition of two realms – reality and fiction – creates an immediate collision. The actual creation of Meyer’s insect artworks, however, falls within the years 2011 to 2020, with new sculptures continuously being crafted in her Leipzig studio to expand the extensive collection. Yet, the work’s intrinsic and paratextual language, in other words, its title, suggests a research expedition to the South Pacific that occurred around the turn of the century. This fictional SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION conjures dreamlike images of white sandy beaches and isolated lagoons, densely vegetated jungles resonating with exotic animal sounds, and ocean waves shimmering in all shades of blue. Meyer’s work taps into the inherent human yearning for distant islands and the unknown. The ideal breeding ground for this yearning is the set of notions most people associate with the South Pacific. The thought of the islands and atolls of the Pacific Ocean in the early 20th century evokes a time when adventures still seemed attainable, when the flora and fauna of remote areas were yet to be explored, and the final frontiers of the world were yet to be crossed.

Our perception of the South Pacific has been greatly shaped by travel accounts and literature of that era. These are supplemented by renowned visual representations of the trope, such as the peaceful and colorful paintings by Paul Gauguin and Emil Nolde, capturing their views of the exotic faraway lands. Commonly described and depicted is a harmonious life in sync with nature and the “natives,” far removed from the burdens of civilization. However, upon closer examination of this cultural phenomenon, a highly idealized and romanticized view emerges, reflecting the Western perspective on the foreign. Even back then, the prevailing (stereotypical) notions of idyllic South Pacific life did not align with reality. Under the colonial rule of the Wilhelmine Empire, oppression and exploitation had penetrated these paradisiacal images by the 19th century, and the collecting zeal of certain researchers sometimes led to a threat to the local culture and environment. These places had long become “lost paradises.”

Nevertheless, the peculiar insects do not evoke distressing feelings in the observers, as there is no reference to the real background or societal issues of colonialist-driven research expeditions. Instead of addressing reality, this work series seems to target human imagination. The predominant worlds created are those of dreams and desires, allowing us to imagine a hundred-year-old research expedition. The fiction of diligent entomologists traveling from island to island to collect these unreal-looking insects does not play upon South Pacific stereotypes, nor can it be interpreted as a realistic account of the circumstances of the time. This work series resists precise classification; the boundaries between nature, literature, and art, reality and imagination, blur. On one hand, the SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION can be perceived as a work of art on a formal-aesthetic level. From this perspective, the viewer delights in the sight of an artistic collection of insects, seemingly natural history-related but crafted through the sculptor’s inventive skill. Moreover, Dana Meyer invites us to transcend analytical observation and embark on a fictional journey. Those who embrace this invitation and trust their own dreamlike abilities can immerse themselves in faraway places of longing: feel the fine sand beneath their feet and catch a fleeting glimpse of the wiry legs of a passing palm beetle; struggle through the jungle undergrowth in pursuit of the Oxidized Smiling Stick Insect; or ascend Coconut Point on Tutuila to collect a specimen of the rare Rock Stag Beetle, its metallic shell glistening in the sunlight. The SOUTHPACIFICEXPEDITION makes it possible to believe that these “lost paradises” were once populated by fascinating crawling creatures and that the last remaining relics of them have endured within Meyer’s collection of insects. These preserved dreams are always accessible – a fleeting glance into one of the many jars is enough.

About the author

Louise Schmidt

curator Frommanscher Skulpturengarten Jena, projekt Prof, Dr. Verena Krieger chair for art history Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany)

Editor Puplikation „Animal Crossing“ of Jenaer Kunstverein

“Animal Crossing” Puplikation Jenaer Kunstverein (Pdf)