Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Caddis Fly and Lena Dunham

If you've ever walked by a stream you've likely overlooked the cases of the caddis fly, a small winged insect that usually lives near water and creates a protective, waterproof larvae sheath from its silk and substances in its environment like sand, plant materials, and bits of fish bone. The artist Hubert Duprat, who wondered if the flies would incorporate any material if it were within the environment, brought these members of the order Trichoptera to his studio where he placed them within aquaria containing precious stones, the kind of stuff—to steal from Bogart's Sam Spade—from which dreams are made:

Stunning.  I was so taken with these images, these beautiful cases of precious stones, that I didn't think for a minute of the potential metaphor buried in them, questions of value and environmental determinism. Is this a metaphor for artists who aspire to beauty and worth but are not born to the purple? Is it that the rich are different from you and me, that those who are surrounded by the means more closely associated with the beautiful, or those who have access to what is precious, can create a more intensely beautiful body of work?

My students struggle with this question too: is my sense of my world something out of which art may be made? When they struggle with subjects for their poems, they can't help but note that, in some of the books we read, some of us have had vivid, important lives: delightfully splendid, intense, fantastic, terrific, loud, eye-catching material, more immediately attractive. (It's a popular concern these days; a current Rolling Stone article about the phenomenon that is HBO's Girls recounts a twentysomething tweeting: "Lena Dunham is everything I could've been if I hadn't gone to public school in Nebraska.")

Or is it more likely that we only have to spend more time looking. What immediately glitters here only does so because it has charged the eye with what is a terrifically compelling but quotidian activity. The caddis fly assembles intricate, individual, particular gestures from the material with which it is surrounded, and it does so from instinct, from unstudied desire. In other words, it's what you make of what you have; look beyond Dunham's position in life and her connections, and you'll see someone thoroughly at work, shaping, constructing, continuing. To extend Charles Wright, who has said "what you have to say...may not be news; how you say it just might be," the most important material for the artist is the shape of her activity, the act of instinct realized, whatever shape that takes.  Duprat's drawn our eye by jeweling the caddis fly's activity; he's gilded the art so we might attend.

Here is a caddis fly's sheath in its natural environment: Stunning.

You can read more about Duprat's marvelous project in CABINET.

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