All photos courtesy of Catherine Chalmers
Catherine Chalmers isn't fazed by death. The New York–based visual artist recently created a photography series called Food Chain, which unapologetically showcases the circle of life. For the series, Chalmers placed a predator beside its prey and photographed the inevitable: a caterpillar nibbling its way through a tomato, a praying mantis slaying a caterpillar, and a toad eating a praying mantis. Chalmers's accompanying series, Pinkies, works similarly. The first photograph in the series features a litter of just-born mice; the next, we watch one swallowed by a snake, and then another devoured by a toad.
Chalmers sets her subjects against a clean, white background. Quickly, the sterility of the scene becomes littered with blood and guts. She shows the way in which animals thrive—which, she argues, shouldn't disturb us so much. It's what they do. It's what we do. I spoke with her about her project and the impetus behind Food Chain.
VICE: In regard to Food Chain, what got you interested in this subject matter? How did the idea come about?
Catherine Chalmers: I had just finished a black-and-white photography series called Houseflies. Not only was it the first time I had used a camera for my artwork—I started out as a painter – I had never raised animals before either. I was intrigued that this insect, the housefly, whose very name uniquely connects us, lives a parallel life in our own home. The dramas of its existence play out in front of us, yet they are outside of our awareness. We swat them dead and sweep their little corpses off the windowsill, but what did I really know about my fellow roommates? I raised hundreds of houseflies, thousands actually, and photographed them flying around and doing weird and wonderful things in a glass terrarium. Because they ate, and eventually died, at the bottom of the cage and my camera was pointed up in the air, I randomly missed photographing two essential parts of their life: eating and dying. As I imagined what project to work on next, those two words jumbled around in my head, and it finally dawned on me they were not randomly related, but intricately, and often violently, bound to one another. I saw that they were flip sides of the same coin and a key ingredient of the ecosystem. I thought, well, there it is—I’ll recreate a food chain.
Was there any hesitation, or did you pretty much jump right into it? I imagine there'd be some initial doubt going into this, right?
I was horrified. Really, you’re going to raise an animal specifically to photograph it dying? The thought of it gave me a stomach ache. But the more I considered it, and probably because I was so disturbed, the more I realized its power. How is it possible—and isn’t it a bad sign—that an educated person could be so detached from the processes of life on earth?
That brings me to my next question. What kind of reaction are you expecting people to have, or rather, want them to have?
The reaction people could, should, or might have doesn’t figure into the creation of my work. The visual arts are a toolbox I use to investigate what intrigues me and I utilize whatever medium best suites the expedition. The resulting work is a record of my discovery. I hope what tugs and twists me into a project, which take years to complete, will also be the things that people take away from it. How satisfying if my work could function like a flashlight illuminating what I think is important. My interests, though, are informed by the time in which I live. Two hundred years ago, maybe less, most people were farmers or ranchers and raised a good amount of their own food. They were intimately connected with the processes of nature. Food chains were obvious. No need to make art about them.
That's a really good point.
Today, most of us live an urban existence and the grocery store is one of the few links we have to a food chain. When nature and culture meet today, they often collide in a nexus of confusion, and fear. For example, without insects, we would all be dead. Plants wouldn’t be pollinated, the soil would rot, and the ecosystem would collapse in a matter of months. And how do we repay them for supporting us? By hating them.
I'm extremely guilty of fearing spiders. So you're trying to change our minds about insects?
My work aims to give form to the richness, as well as the brutality and indifference that often characterize our relationship with animals. My ultimate wish is to broaden the cultural significance of the non-human world.
You mention that these projects take years to make. I'm curious, how long did it take to get each picture for Food Chain just right? Were there more than one of each insect or animal used?
Raising, feeding, watering, and cleaning up after my growing zoo—those things consumed the majority of my time. As in the natural world, I only had a few top predators compared with a large population of species at the bottom of the food chain. Predators need a varied diet. Many of the insects I raised never appeared in the work. The issue wasn’t how long it took to get each picture just right, because in my mind there was no preconceived right, but that it took many months to coordinate the timing of each species’ development. I went through several generations of caterpillars before the praying mantis egg cases even hatched. The predator/prey relationship can reverse itself depending on size. A large praying mantis will readily eat a small frog, and one of my large caterpillars killed a small praying mantis, much to my dismay.
Since you are dealing with the death of some living creatures, I'm wondering—have you received negative reactions from animal activists or the like?
I was threatened at a book signing. A local NPR station was picketed after broadcasting my interview on This American Life. I’ve received hate mail and “I hate you” emails. But these extreme reactions have been lone individuals. Animal-rights organizations fully realize that a snake doesn’t eat tofu and that predation is a basic part of the natural world. I’m not killing anything. I’m only raising one thing to sustain another. Either the mouse dies, or the snake dies of starvation. There is no way around that. The mouse wants to live, the snake wants to eat, and we come along with a third, highly subjective judgment, which often slants these days toward rooting for the underdog. Why should we go by our opinion? If anything we should be rooting for a healthy ecosystem.
This might be a silly question, but what's your take on eating animals? Are you a vegetarian?
The project grew out of a desire to be more engaged with the natural world. Over time, I became fascinated by the strange disconnect between what people seem to want to believe happens in nature and what actually does. Humans are incredibly efficient killers, yet we are remarkably queasy at facing, or acknowledging, what we do. I’m an omnivore. Eating a chicken running around the yard is an ecologically sustainable thing to do. But supporting the industrial feedlot system of mass produced chickens, for example, is gross and distressing. I try to eat in a way that is easy on the planet. Unfortunately, though, there is really no innocence in eating. Something dies for us to live.
Are there more food-chain examples you're working on?
No. After Food Chain, I raised Periplaneta americana, the American cockroach—a.k.a. the dreaded waterbug—for a multimedia project. I wanted to investigate the part of humanity that hates nature and to look at the adversarial side of our relationship with animals. I could think of few species more loathed than the roach.
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