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Art of Insecticide

Catherine Chalmers' American Cockroach exhibit may really bug some people out.


Grand Arts invited Catherine Chalmers to town, and now, as a result, the downtown gallery is full of cockroaches. It sounds crazy (and gross and wrong), but the little creepy crawlers are the muses for Chalmers' new exhibit, American Cockroach.

Used in her sculptures, videos, drawings and large-scale photography, Chalmers' cockroaches are meant to encourage patrons to reconsider their relationship with nature.

Chalmers' fascination with the insect world began with her book Food Chain, which records life's brutal cycles with close-ups of predators turned prey. For the book, Chalmers raised pet pests in her New York City apartment, giving her an intimate perspective on their lives.

"The cockroach is a metaphor for us, but more than that, it equates the life, the rights of living things, to ourselves," says Sean Kelly, co-founder and co-director of Grand Arts. Chalmers puts the cockroach metaphor to work with a series of execution scenes, complete with miniature electric chairs, nooses, lynch mobs and gas chambers.

Fret not, cockroach-a-philes. The cockroaches used in the exhibit lived a happy and cosmopolitan life in New York, where they were fed and cared for by the artist herself. Furthermore, the cockroaches used in the execution photographs (including a burning at the stake, captured on video) had died of natural causes before Chalmers subjected them to torture. The cockroaches used in the gas chamber scene were alive when Chalmers turned on the carbon dioxide but, as the Chamber video clearly illustrates, the carbon dioxide just knocked them out for a little while. Either that or Chalmers has some freakish zombie cockroaches under her sink.

In addition to finding other creative uses for dead cucarachas, Chalmers took detached cockroach legs and glued them onto paper to create a geometric pattern resembling the molecular map of chlorpyrifos, the chemical compound found in most pesticides. If none of these images creeps you out, the 6-foot-tall, resin-cast cockroach or the pile of 4-foot long roach legs ought to do it.

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