Cockroaches as Shadow and Metaphor

May 8, 2003


Catherine Chalmers's SoHo apartment is alive with the sound
of imminent death. Crickets, food for a rubbery green tree
frog, chirp loudly. The frog sits in a terrarium, a big
grin on its face. What's not to smile about? Plenty of
other food, a horde of crawling mealworms, is nearby.

The tree frog is one of Ms. Chalmers's stars. For part of a
gloriously horrific series of giant pictures titled "Food
Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators and Prey,"
finished in 1997, she photographed the frog in action.
Slit-eyed and gummy-footed, it smiles as a praying mantis
boldly walks up, taps it on the forehead and climbs aboard.
Frog and mantis look like storybook friends. But with one
quick lash of its tongue over its back, the frog laps up
the mantis. The last picture shows the frog's lips slightly
parted as if in a burp. Instant Aesop.

Ms. Chalmers is an artist obsessed. On one white wall she
has created wallpaper by gluing dead tiger beetles in tiny
five-petaled patterns. On another wall she has glued a
lineup of cricket corpses. On the floor lies a pile of
sticks, kindling for cockroach immolations. Swimming in an
aquarium near the entryway are pink creatures that look
like newborn mice with webbed feet. They are African clawed
frogs. Ms. Chalmers says they resemble cherubs from a
Tiepolo painting.

This gives you a sense of the wild aesthetic universe of
Catherine Chalmers but does not quite capture her macabre
moral universe. At the moment she is preparing for a photo
and video exhibition of cockroach "executions" at Rare, a
Chelsea gallery, from Saturday to June 7, and a bigger show
of cockroach photographs and videos at Grand Arts in Kansas
City, Mo., in the fall.

How did she get to cockroaches? She studied engineering at
Stanford University, then went to the Royal College of Art
in London. "It took me a long time to learn that I could
work with animals and still be in the art world," she said.
She started by using dirt, leaves and dead flies in her
paintings. Soon she was raising her own flies. She found
the swarms beautiful and began taking their pictures.

Ms. Chalmers is not fond of cockroaches. She admits that on
the rare occasion that she sees an uninvited one in her
apartment, she squashes it. (She keeps her model roaches,
all males to prevent breeding, upstate.) Unlike, say,
praying mantises, which have "lots of personality, big
heads and dramatic sex lives," cockroaches, she said, are
"boring and ugly." They are blank canvases. What makes them
intriguing, she said, is that everyone hates them.

Beginning in the late 1990's Ms. Chalmers decided to delve
into the hatred a little. She began a series called
"American Cockroach." For the first part, "Impostors," she
wondered: "Is it possible to seduce people into liking

She started painting and decorating her roaches to resemble
bugs and plants people like - ladybugs, bumblebees, aloe
plants and pink veronica flowers - then photographed them
in pretty settings. To get them to hold still, she chilled
the cockroaches in a refrigerator.

For the bumblebee roach, she applied a yellow coat of paint
and black stripes. To simulate a bee's fuzziness, she
bought yellow and black tassels at a fabric store and cut
them up to create flocking.

Cockroaches have always been "our shadows as we spread
across the globe," Ms. Chalmers said. They are immigrants
(from Africa to the Americas). They are ancient (unchanged
since the Carboniferous period, 350 million to 290 million
years ago). And they are omnivores. So why do they disgust
us? Perhaps, Ms. Chalmers said, "because they are similar
to us."

For the second part of the project, "Infestations," Ms.
Chalmers explored the fear that roaches will someday take
over the human world. She built dollhouse-size roach
habitats - a bathroom, kitchen and living room - then took
pictures as the roaches settled in.

By far the most disturbing section of Ms. Chalmers's
cockroach project, though, is "Executions": a series of
black-and-white photographs and color videos. One picture
shows a cockroach lynching, a lineup of roaches hanging by
tiny string nooses. Another depicts three cockroaches
burning at the stake. A third captures an electrocution:
the roach, bound to a small wooden chair with leather
straps, is zapped by a bolt from a Tesla coil.

"I want to get out of humanness," Ms. Chalmers said, "to
imagine life as a cockroach, to explore the world with long
feelers." Then why not photograph roaches dying the way
they really die at human hands: in Roach Motels, in
pesticide or under a boot? Why depict them dying by
hanging, burning and electrocution? Because, she said, it
is only when you show the cockroaches dying the way humans
do that humans are drawn into the story.

This is troubling. And perhaps not in the way Ms. Chalmers

As part of the execution series, she made some short
videos. They look like cockroach snuff films. One is of a
roach being roasted at the stake.

A live roach is shown bound to a vertical stick. You hear
breathing sounds, and then, as the flames begin to climb,
you see the roach's brown belly breathe deeply and its
limbs thrash. As the flames lick the stick, you hear the
fire crackle and hiss. Pretty soon the breathing of the
fire replaces the breathing of the cockroach. The bug jerks
once more, then hangs its head. As the roach turns black
and crisp and the flame dies down, the sound of the wind
overtakes the sound of the fire.

Ms. Chalmers quickly said that no cockroach had been harmed
in the making of the video (or the photographs). She
replaced the live roach bound to a stick with a dead one
and burned that. The flames that lick at the live roach,
she said, were overlaid on the live-roach video.

She briefly toyed with creating real roach executions.
"Should I kill some?" she wondered before making the
videos. Two experiences told her not to.

In 2001 an Artnews feature about Ms. Chalmers said she was
planning some cockroach executions. Irate letters poured
in. A few years before that, during a book signing for
"Food Chain," which includes pictures of a snake strangling
a rat and a mantis chewing off its mate's head, an angry
vegetarian came up to Ms. Chalmers and called her a Nazi.

The upshot, Ms. Chalmers said, was, "I bent over backwards
not to hurt anything." With Hollywood movies no one wonders
whether people are actually being killed, she noted. But
with video, people expect honesty.

That did not stop her from making a video of roaches in a
gas chamber. As the video begins, you see the misty gray
air inside the chamber. The roaches are dead on their
backs. Then a few legs twitch. Soon the air begins to
clear. You can see the bricks of the gas chamber and the
little pipe through which the gas came in. More and more
roach legs and antennae wiggle. The sounds of whispers,
giggling and breathing fill the air. Soon the roaches are
crawling everywhere. It is the cockroach equivalent of
Martin Amis's Holocaust novel, "Time's Arrow," in which
time runs backward.

While making this video, Ms. Chalmers said, she got very
upset, not because of the Holocaust parallel but because
she thought she had actually put the roaches through an
agonizing death. Previously she had always knocked her
roaches out by chilling them. But Betty Faber, an
entomologist, told her to try carbon dioxide. So she put
the roaches in the chamber and with a pipe pumped in the
gas from dry ice, which is frozen carbon dioxide. The
roaches went into "dramatic convulsions," she said. "They
tossed themselves all over the place, threw themselves
against the walls. Then they all fell on their backs."

She thought: "I can't show this. It's visually too
disturbing." But then, as the videotape kept rolling and
the dry ice cleared, the cockroaches rose from the dead.
Their legs started kicking. "The most beautiful part is
their getting up," Ms. Chalmers said. She decided to show
the uncut video from this point on. It shows the
cockroaches as survivors. "I wanted to show their
character," Ms. Chalmers says. "They keep coming back."

You might think that Ms. Chalmers would have been upset
because she had, by effectively reversing the gassing
process, given her Holocaust a happy ending. Or you might
think that she would have worried that she had compared
vermin and Jews, which is what the Nazis did. (Her
photographs of lynchings bring up the same problem. She
seems to be comparing African-Americans and insects.)

But these are not her worries. Ms. Chalmers is not making
points about the human world but about human relationships
to animals.

Soon Ms. Chalmers will say goodbye to the cockroach. She
wants to photograph rocks and trees, leaf-cutter ants and
blue-footed boobies. First though she has to finish some
videos and some mosaiclike drawings, made from the body
parts of dead cockroaches. Then she will await the arrival
of a nearly human-size cockroach that she is having cast in
a translucent amber mixture of resin and rubber. It will
hang from a life-size noose. "Then I'm done, done, done,
and I can't wait."