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The Golden Age of the Cockroach

The cockroach was a cultural muse of the 20th century, but it's curiously absent in the 21st. We’re looking at a generation of artists that didn’t grow up with roaches, that don’t live with them, that don’t relate to them, that don’t even know where to...

Illustration by Michele Witchipoo

Every era in art has a new favored subject. The Etruscans looked to Hercules; painters of the Renaissance reenvisioned the Bible; the American Ashcan School rendered sensitive tableaus of poor urban life; and the later half of the 20th century, dominated by the PoMo-ism of downtown NYC, crowned a new king, the cockroach, which was not only an available resource, but a stand-in for the artist—a heroic outcast, thriving in the ruins of civilization.


The oeuvre of the cockroach is best understood as a series of distinct ages that, in turn, comprise a whole. During the Reformation, the cockroach was reconsidered; the Enlightenment percieved the cockroach as potentially “divine”; the Golden Age saw the pinnacle of the discipline; the Silver Age was consumed by celebrity; the Bronze Age refigured the subject as metaphor and victim; the Age of Decline represented the subject in absentia and/or in parts. As far as I can tell, no one has completed, or even attempted, to survey the cockroach's place in the art world, so consider this seven-part piece that examines an artistic era that scuttled by so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed it.

Ed Rushca, Cockroaches (1972). Photo courtesy Bukowskis Auktionhouse, Stockholm

The Reformation
The cockroach of antiquity and the Middle Ages lived in a cultural darkness—cockroaches were no better off than peasants, their teeming masses obscure, despised, and considered unworthy as a subject of art.  Emerging from this age of katsaridaphobia, the 20th-century cockroach made a halting entry into popular culture. Its first notable foray into modern consciousness came with Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” though it must be remembered that not until the 21st century was the original German word ungeziefer consistently translated as “cockroach,” a term which may well be an anachronistic liberty. Gregor Samsa is not explicitly referred to as a cockroach in the original text, and Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist as well as an author and literary critic, believed that Gregor was, technically, “a big beetle.” Nabokov’s argument focused on the wings that Gregor never realized he had, which brings us back to the roach, who is even less disposed to use his wings than the beetle; if Gregor is indeed a cockroach, it is not so much that he doesn’t know he can fly, it’s that he doesn’t want to.


Bear this in mind as we consider the Reformation era of the cockroach, which begins post–World War II. The quiet, peace-loving bug, wanting nothing more than a warm place and some privacy in a tight crevice, found a new nest within the American domicile: the television cabinet (as it was then known). A boom in electronics provided abundant habitat for the roaches, whose numbers, via human population density, were already on the rise. The cockroach, equated in wartime with fascists and occasionally with communists, became a cohabitant of the ordinary American, and the generation that grew up eye to eye with the cockroach viewed the creature with a revulsion tempered by sympatico fondness.

In the early 1950s, Andy Warhol, then living in an East Village apartment, unzipped his portfolio for a Madison Avenue art director, to have a cockroach leap out. This story—possibly somewhat true—is indicative of the arrival of the downtown scene: The artist (i.e., the cockroach) lived downtown but went uptown to become something celebrated. In 1959 William Burroughs extended the metaphor: The cockroach of Naked Lunch served as guiding spirit and muse. In 1962 Leonard Baskin softened the harsh popular conception of the cockroach with his Rorschachesque illustrative style in Creatures of Darkness. By 1964 the artist was literally represented as the cockroach—George Kuchar’s 8mm film The Lovers of Eternity features a gigantic roach as a central figure in the bohemian gambol.


Panels from Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

The Enlightenment
In the Age of Enlightenment—which roughly corresponds with the Age of Aquarius in the human world—the cockroach becomes more than an analog of the artist experience. Jim Carroll, who performed with cockroaches in the late 60s and exhaustively recounted their presence in his memoirs, tortured captive roaches to appeal to the sadism of his audiences while simultaneously seeking to reject arty pretension. Throughout the 60s, the roach was normatively seen as something to fear—as in the cat-tormenting roach armies of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers—but the roach is also a curiously hapless underdog. One can’t help but root for those comix legions of roaches; they’re disgusting and militaristic, but, after all, no more offensive than the Freak Brothers themselves. Anne Sexton’s “Cockroach,” first published in the literary journal Antaeus and later collected in 45 Mercer Street, views the hated creature in reverence: “These days even the devil is getting overturned / and held up to the light like a glass of water.” This attitude of meditation and primordial wisdom is perfectly illustrated in Ed Ruscha’s 1972 series of silkscreens on wood, Cockroaches, which featured the ancient species in a light both meditative and noble. A more visceral incarnation of Enlightenment-era reverence can be found in Vito Acconci’s 1970 performance-video Rubbings, in which the artist smashes cockroaches into his naked, hairy belly, and rubs them into his gut until they disappear, until the artist and his divine subject are one.


Still from Vito Acconci’s Rubbings (1970), courtesy Acconci Studio

The Golden Age
The cockroach came of age, appropriately, with punk and no wave. We might pin the first glint of gold to 1981, when Joey Skaggs, an East Village prankster and performance artist, offered the world the cure-all “Cockroach Vitamin Pill.” Skaggs, taking on the persona of entomologist Dr. Gregor, conned the United Press International and WNBC-TV into covering the news item. (Skaggs was interviewed on air by Jack Cafferty and Sue Simmons.) The miracle cockroach pill was subsequently covered in hundreds of venues—until Skaggs outed himself in People magazine.

Joey Skaggs, aka Dr. Josef Gregor, poses as a world-famous entomologist during his Metamorphosis hoax in 1981.

Skaggs exemplified the New York City East Village arts scene of the late 70s and early 80s, which was a radical departure from the uptown galleries. But while the East Village was self-consciously ultranow, the scene also embraced the Bowery B’hoy-sideshow history of New York City. Christy Rupp’s ABC No Rio gallery, in the group show Animals in the City (1979, encore 1980), offered the animal menagerie, which was had always been part of the downtown NYC theatrical tradition. In East Village, postpunk-protogrunge style, Rupp directed audiences to gaze upon the marvels of mangy dogs, New Wave hamsters, and other worthy spectacles. Rupp's urban safari inspired PS1’s similarly themed The Beast Show in 1982, which is best remembered as the party crashed by the roach spawn of David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz’s animal iconography—his puking cow, for example—was emblematic of the East Village, and, outraged by his exclusion from the exhibition, he showed up at the opening and set loose (reported numbers vary) several dozen to 2,000 of his “cockabunnies.” The cockabunny, a signature Wojnarowicz fabrication, was a cockroach with a cotton tail and paper rabbit ears. The workmanship was impressive: While Wojnarowicz did employ a dab of glue to affix the tail, he did not use glue to attach the ears, rather, he tied the rabbit ears to his cockroaches—and having researched the subject, I can assure you that this is not easily accomplished. At most, Wojnarowicz could complete 50 cockabunnies a day. To set loose 2,000 cockabunnies, Wojnarowicz would have had to prepare for 40 days. (It is possible that Wojnarowicz set loose several groups of cockabunnies, let's say 250 a week, for the duration of the exhibit.) Though it was an interloper, the cockabunny is the most remembered artwork of The Beast Show and left so indelible a stamp on the arts community that the cockroach could not be disassociated with Wojnarowicz or the East Village; by the late 80s, the art roach had become something of a cliché. A December 1989 issue of New York magazine featured a takedown of downtown dining in which a restaurant consultant offhandedly remarked, “You have small artists in small spaces doing cockroach art.”


While the cockabunny has been replicated—notably, for MTV interstitials—all of those replicas have had their ears affixed with glue, not thread. (I know, because, full disclosure, I was an advisor for the MTV cockabunnies.) Furthermore, with the death of the traditional East Village and its denigration by an establishment art scene that took over neighboring Soho (then moved to Chelsea), we are not likely to again witness a wholesale identification with cockroaches. And of course, there’s the practical matter: Wojnarowicz worked exclusively with the American cockroach, which, since 1982, has been pushed to the fringe of New York City by the invasive German cockroach. The American variation is larger and fatter than the German and boasts an appealing golden hue, as opposed to the shoe-leather brown of the Kraut roach.

The Silver Age
In the 90s, the cockroach, now an art star, slipped into the comfortable role of celebrity. Bad Mojo, an adult-oriented computer game from 1996, took Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” as a jumping-off point and put players in the skin of the cockroach. In 1997 Guillermo del Torro’s Mimic fashioned a cockroach Freddie; Marie Osmond, the year before, created the fine-porcelain doll, Count Cocky Cockroach (now highly collectible). Refined, the cockroach graced the pages of Esquire when Robert Crumb—suddenly respectable himself—rendered a 1994 version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In MTV’s 1996 film Joe’s Apartment and Daniel Evan Weiss’s 1994 novel, The Roaches Have No King, the cockroach was cast as essential to the boy-girl love story. Even pop-culture barometers like the X Files (“War of the Coprophages,” episode 12, season 3 in 1996) and Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers in 1997) skittered into the craze.


Yeah, Marie Osmond designed this.

The art world, meanwhile, always distrustful of things people seem to like, was standoffish toward its former love. It was not until 1997 that the roach turned a corner, starring as the sole species in Catherine Chalmers’s Infestation. The cockroach had previously made a rogue gallery appearance alongside rats, snakes, mice, and spiders in Chalmers 1994 series Food Chain, which featured photographs of creatures eating other creatures, and piqued the ire of animal-rights activists. Also in 1997, Jake and Dinos Chapman showed their seminal work, Cockroach Kid, which revisited the question: Just who is the cockroach around here?

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Cockroach Kid (1997). Fibreglass, resin, paint, wig, trainers, and metal plate 40 13/16 x 23 7/16 x 18 7/16 in. (104.1 x 59.7 x 47 cm). © Jake and Dinos Chapman. Courtesy White Cube

The Bronze Age
In Chalmers’s Infestation, the cockroaches happily inhabited doll-sized dioramas, appearing almost domestic. But in her follow-up series, Execution, first shown in 2000, Chalmers struck the first blow for the Bronze Age of cockroach art. The Bronze Age marks a sudden change in direction—after 350 million years, the cockroach, the archetypical survivor—is no longer surviving.

Image from Catherine Chalmers's Execution (2000)

For years, the Roach Motel was the preferred method of combatting infestations. The motels (glue traps in small boxes) were placed around the affected areas in a house or apartment, and soon enough the insides of the motels were felty with wiggling antennae. The problem: While the motels were satisfying (one could bear witness to the extended pain and suffering of the villains), they did not kill many roaches. Boric acid was also a big premillenium item, but nobody wanted 100 piles of boric acid around the house. And then came the bait stations. With the advent of those little black discs—which attract roaches with poisoned food they then spread to their brethren—and their distribution in the hundreds of millions, the roach populations of urban centers plummeted. Other sprays and poisons sterilized the beasts. If Infestation demonstrated the presumed notion that no matter what we did, the cockroaches would prevail, Execution dramatized the opposite: We are Armageddon, and the roaches will not survive.


Why do we hate roaches? There are 5,000 species of them, only 30 of which live around people, and only four of which are "pests." Perhaps we might source our antagonism to our own failings: In just a few thousand years, we’ve threatened the ecosystem and wiped out countless species of plants and animals. The roach, in comparison, has lived on this planet since the continents were still attached, and never hurt anyone. Perhaps, prior to the Bronze Age, we could take comfort in the notion that the roach would outlive us, would crawl out of the dust of nuclear winter and proceed to their inevitable destiny as the true masters of the planet. But with the new millennium—the storms, the climate change, the ecological catastrophe that humanity has engendered—it’s become increasingly clear that the planet’s worst nightmare is not a full-scale nuclear war. The greater risk is worldwide housing development, with associated strip malls, parking lots, and landfills. And that future is well underway—and as the majority of roaches live in rain forests, a rapidly vanishing homestead, we’re witnessing unparalleled annihilation of an erstwhile world-dominating animal; even if the 30 types of roaches who can live with us can find a future in the aforementioned malls, those locations are not sound, long-term alternatives. Any creature that wants to survive the man-made end of Earth will have to hitch a ride with us into space, and the four types of roaches that live really close to us, i.e., the pests, may not be invited inside.


Another image from Catherine Chalmers's Execution (2000)

In 2005, I visited Chalmers studio, and she assured me that she hadn’t “harmed” any roaches (more animal-rights activists were freaked out), but I saw the pictures, the movies, and her studio, and I assure you she did. She was not executing her roaches with special effects. Until 2003, the bad intentions of Chalmer’s Execution cycle distinguishes the Bronze Age, when Yoko Ono’s Odyssey of a Cockroach relegated the cockroach to a pure metaphor. Ono, in her cockroach POV exhibition, invited gallery-goers to see the world from a cockroach's-eye view. “Through the eyes of this other strong race, we may learn the true reality of what our dreams and nightmares have created,” the artist’s statement reads. But Ono’s construct is not so benign after all: We, as artgoers, as a species, have become the cockroach. To Ono, there is no cockroach of yore, merely a ghostly vision that transcends the bodily experience. In keeping with this theme of the dismantled roach consciousness, consider that in 2010, “roboroach” kits that allow you to control live roaches became available from multiple manufacturers. Price: $20.

A roboroach in action.

The Decline
Perhaps rightly, the Age of Decline is no more than a tuft of footnotes. The roach itself has been removed from the equation of cockroach art, and the period presents the cockroach only in absentia, or in parts. Fabian Peña, for example, uses roach limbs and wings as a palette for his paintings and renderings. Fernando de La Rocque’s ongoing series Barata de Ouro ("golden cockroach") entombs cockroaches in gold paint—except they’re fake. While at one time de La Rocque used only the genuine article, the sculptures in their Saatchi incarnation are representational, constructed of aluminum, enamel, and paper.

Certainly, it's an act of hubris to chronicle the cockroach from the myopic vantage of humanity or to announce it an artistic movement and declare it dead in the same breath. But the cockroach doesn’t speak for itself, and where the cockroach was a cultural muse of the 20th century, the cockroach is curiously absent in the 21st—and where one might expect the soft tentative touches of antennae, there is instead a void. Damien Hirst kills 9,000 butterflies; Samuel Mark decorates trashed furniture with street-style, spray-painted bed bugs; Shiva Burgos leaves the painting to giant beetles. We’re looking at a generation of artists that didn’t grow up with roaches, that don’t live with them, that don’t relate to them, that don’t even know where to find them.

Fabian Peña's The Impossibility of Storage for the Soul I (Self-Portrait), (2007), which is made of roach wings. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

A seventh age of cockroach art—a renaissance—isn’t going to happen. Even in the East Village, the American cockroach has been totally overthrown by the German cockroach, which is wet-shit-colored and measly, an aesthetic disappointment. The roach as we know it—plagued by bait traps and reproductive poisons—is in a state of hysteria, racing helter-skelter through a period that may well culminate in the end of their 5,000-species, 350-million-year reign of the blue planet.

The scuttlebutt going around the internet is this: The scales have tipped, and the total mass of the human population now outweighs the total mass of the cockroach population. Which perhaps provides food for thought. With Western nations increasingly concerned with fine dining (Top Chef, etc), climate change’s potential to cause food shortages, and artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija making a compelling argument for communal dining as a form of high art, might we look to non-Western traditions and menus to inspire a new and sumptuous vision of the roach?

Perhaps just such a new order is already underway, and the six ages of cockroach art will repeat on a larger scale, a global scale, and will herald the arrival of a yet stronger, more definitive kinship between cockroach and man. In October 2012, 32-year-old Floridian Edward Archbold suffocated after binging on dozens of live roaches during a roach-eating contest. Might our Edward be the first martyr of the cockroach? Angelina Jolie, who of course eats cockroaches, warns only: “There’s this very pointy bit on their stomach you just can’t eat. You have to kind of pop that off.” If Archbold and Jolie constitute evidence of the New Order Reformation, there will shortly follow a New Order Enlightenment, during which the cockroach will become a pretentious foodstuff (enter Tiravanija); next, a New Order Golden Age, during which the cockroach will be elevated to delicacy; the New Order Silver Age will popularize the cockroach, perhaps in the form of snacks or fast food; finally, during the Bronze and Decline periods, the cockroach will loose its headliner appeal, and settle into use as a base ingredient, such as soy or cornstarch.

It is somewhat melancholy to imagine the day when the cockroach, once free-spirited and ambling, is born as livestock, no more noble than the chicken too fat to walk, the cow lowing dolefully on the slaughter hook. But through our symbiosis with the cockroach, perhaps we will survive our own scurrying avarice, and find our place in a starry future. We may—even if we don’t want to—spread our wings and fly.