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Creating art from birds, bugs, and bones

As natural disasters hog the news, these artists reexamine our ties to the mother ship.

By Carol StricklandContributor / June 21, 2010

New York

A visitor to the Museum of Arts and Design, known as MAD, told chief curator David McFadden, "I have a title for your show: 'Natural History Goes Mad.' " A hint of the mad scientist's vivarium hovers over the exhibition officially titled "Dead or Alive" on display until Oct. 24. The materials from which more than 30 contemporary artists from all over the world make their art are from formerly living things, such as silkworm cocoons, porcupine bones, octopus tentacles, and cockroach wings.

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Creating art from birds, bugs, and bones is apparently all the rage. "There could easily have been 100 artists in this show," says Mr. McFadden, even though in seeking nature-based art he excluded wood, basketry, fiber, and stone. Artists, often in the vanguard in expressing social and cultural concerns, have turned to science and natural history.

With nature so much in the news, as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes disrupt humans' best-laid plans, these artists look prescient in examining our ties to the mother ship. There are so many skulls and bones in the exhibition, a pirate would feel right at home, but what do they express?

IN PICTURES: Artists' work from the 'Dead or Alive' exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

"There may be a kind of reassurance in this show," McFadden says. "One of the fears embedded in human culture is the fear we're not in control and we're being manipulated." He adds, "These artists have reversed the tables because they've clearly put themselves back in control of an aspect of nature."

This impulse to impose order on nature's randomness is evident in Claire Morgan's sculpture "On Top of the World" (2009) consisting of hundreds of bluebottle flies suspended on nylon threads in the form of a cube. Helen Altman also makes use of a minimalist grid, hanging 49 skulls sculpted from aromatics such as lavender, cloves, and cinnamon on the wall in "Spice Skulls" (2008-09). Instead of the stench of decay, a pleasant fragrance emanates from these emblems of mortality, but only if you approach closely enough to inhale.

Curator Lowery Sims says there's "definitely" an ecological mind-set at work. The exhibition by mostly young artists reflects a generational shift toward using natural material. "These are the kids," McFadden says, "who grew up in a world where everyone talked about global issues, recycling, and natural resources."

Their art expresses concern for the environment, as in Lucia Madriz's floor installation of red and black beans, corn, and rice called "Gold Fever" (2010). Two skeletal hands hold a seed. Banners spell out "Modified Seed" and "Contaminated Food," a jab at agribusinesses that sell sterile seeds. Christy Rupp uses chicken bones discarded after fast-food meals to make skeletal models of extinct birds like the dodo or great auk. "Artists can ask questions," Ms. Rupp says, "but they don't have to deliver answers." In her reconstructions, she asks us to think about how consumption leads to oblivion and the futility of trying to resurrect what's lost.

In overtly political works, there's always a risk of preaching. "The difference between conventional political art and these artists," Ms. Sims says, "is that they hold onto their aesthetic sense, which makes it more powerful. You get seduced in, and when you confront the reality of the message, it makes you think."