Monday, October 28, 2013

Catherine Caswell's "What Remains" at the Tweed

This past week at the Tweed Museum in Duluth we had the pleasure/privilege of attending the opening for Blood Memoirs, an exhibition I've already written about here this past week, shining light from a new perspective on  aspects of the Tweed collection. On the same evening of this opening there was a student show in the next room featuring work by Katie Caswell. As u entered the space I was immediately captivated by the imagery, as well as the imbalance in some of her work. I had the good fortune of being able to meet her there. I started by asking about a piece which she had titled Life Story. I felt impelled to understand the work more deeply and learned much as she shared.

"Basically, my whole show talks about the emptiness and isolation that results from the internal obsession with having an eating disorder or having any other kind of debilitating mental illness," she explained in a most transparent manner. "I have struggled with eating disorders and still do… something I will be struggling with my whole life. I got the idea of relating it to insects based on the idea of getting too big to fit in your own skin basically and becoming the empty shell. Cicadas were the insect I was drawn to because you find their husks clinging to trees and and stuff all over the place. The life of the cicada I found interesting because they spend the majority of their life underground in the darkness down there and I kind of related to that feeling like you’re kind of curled up in a dark place for a lot of our life and you emerge only to shed your skin and die. It’s really grotesque. I don’t know if if that comes through in the work, but the life of a cicada in my opinion is kind of a depressing thing. I also found it interesting during research to find that cicadas are also a sign of re-birth in Chinese culture. They would put cicadas on the tongue of a deceased person to ensure rebirth in the afterlife. So it’s loaded with symbolism."

Indeed it is.

Wikipedia outlines the life of a cicada in this manner:

Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their lives, at depths ranging from about 30 centimetres (0.98 ft) down to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft). The nymphs feed on root juice and have strong front legs for digging. In the final nymphal instar, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. They then molt (shed their skins) on a nearby plant for the last time and emerge as adults. The exuvia, or abandoned exoskeleton, remains, still clinging to the bark of trees. After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig, and into these she deposits her eggs. She may do so repeatedly, until she has laid several hundred eggs. When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow. Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts from two to five years. Some species have much longer life cycles, such as the North American genus, Magicicada, which has a number of distinct "broods" that go through either a 17-year or, in some parts of the world, a 13-year life cycle.   

The natural world is filled with wonders, of which many --like the cicada-- are quite unusual. I remember finding cicada exoskeletons on a number of trees in a forest near my home in Maple Heights when I was a boy. In more recent years we learned that it was another "year of the locust" here in Minnesota. Until this show I was unaware, however, how brief their time in sun actually was.

What impressed me most about Caswell's exhibition was her transparency and vulnerability, her willingness to put herself out there like this. Hopefully we won't have to wait seventeen years till she does it again. It's an impressive body of work. 

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