Catherine Chalmers: We Rule
On ViewThe Drawing Center
October 7, 2022–January 15, 2023
The general tendency of the American Transcendentalists to rely on analogies of the human soul reflected in the natural world stretch back to Emerson, who took the comparisons further than most. Exalting relations between the macro- and microcosmic, he proposed a dissolution of the subjective/objective relation between humanity and nature in his concept of a “transparent eyeball” whereby he proclaimed that “standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Richard Rorty would elaborate and evolve this Emersonian concept in his landmark 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature which sought to atomize arcane correspondence theories of truth in Analytic Philosophy, further dismantling representational barriers obstructing the immediate experience of life. This tradition of “see-through” perspectives is clearly echoed in this quote from Catherine Chalmers’s artist statement, “my artistic career has been focused on one central issue, how to confront and challenge our anthropocentric point of view. Humanity has been drawing lines in the sand forever, defining what is in and what is out, maybe now, at the dawn of the Anthropocene, is a good time to reconsider those lines.”
Chalmers’s compelling multimedia exhibition We Rule has been culled from a ten-year commitment to interacting with over a dozen leafcutter ant colonies located in the Osa peninsula of Costa Rica. It includes high-resolution videos, drawings related to Costa Rican rainforest flora, and an intricate wall installation depicting a to-scale leafcutter colony wending its purposeful way through the basement floor galleries of the Drawing Center. The videos are documented on site in the rainforest, though Chalmers also depicts a few scenarios in which the ants move across artificial backdrops she has temporarily placed, such as the stark white environment of War in which opposing ant colony soldiers vigorously dismantle one another in violent combinations that make Goya’s “Disasters of War” look relatively mild. One wall in the space seems eaten up by the graphic procession of ants who hold in their mandibles what appear to be tiny portions of it (in carefully cut paper). These dismantlers of the institution, drawn directly onto the gallery walls, find their ultimate goal tunneling into the bedrock of lower Manhattan at the end of a narrow passage in the space. On an adjacent wall painted light green the artist has hung (in an array associative of forking paths) sixteen framed drawings of ants that appear to chew out shallow cavities in their pen and ink compositions. Taken in ensemble, Chalmers has sensitively reimagined traditional drawing, abstract composition, and collage to express her meta-narrative of non-human agency.
The question of human intervention in natural processes inevitably arises in Chalmers’s work. It’s not one she intends to either answer to or to resolve. This aspect imbues her overall project with an imaginative abandonment of the sentimental morality tales of human culpability often associated with nature documentaries. She effectively “hacks” the genre to get at more thorny issues of who actually rules and who will ultimately win in a Darwinian end game. The colony mind of leafcutter ants mirrors many of the imperialist impulses of human colonization, a fact Chalmers playfully equivocates in her titling of the show. She is clear, however, that the role of the artist and that of an environmentally aware member of the human race aren’t mutually exclusive. On her blog she subtly parses current determinants of the species:
When we look at the loss of biodiversity, it’s not random. The species facing extinction are long-lived, specialists, slow to reproduce. These are the animals we cherish—the elephant, tiger, panda— the poster species of conservation organizations. Climate change favors the species that are fast-lived, small, fecund, generalists, which are often the animals we like the least—rats, roaches, deer, and pigeons. I find it eerie that the traits possessed by the thriving species mirror many of the same goals put forward at the various (environmental) conferences: to be fast, nimble, cross-disciplinary, generalists.
In other statements she draws correlations between the “hive mind” of the internet and insect logic. Thankfully, the eerie, uncanny valley that Chalmers traverses in her work isn’t simply made of silicon but of more universally ductile stuff. That is, the extraordinary plasticity of animal nature and its ability to supersede mere humane representations.