A Terrible Beauty

We went to the textile museum, my wife, the child and I.

The museum's current feature, A Terrible Beauty, is an exhibition of traditional textile-derived patterns assembled out of the filigree bodies of a million dead insects from around the world, designed by artist Jennifer Angus and curated by Sarah Quinton.

My toddling daughter, who has spent the summer carrying around pocketfuls of live ladybugs as her friends and constant companions, was arrested and transfixed as soon as we walked in the door. "It's lots of bugs!" she whispered in awe, looking up and down the pattern-soaked wall. "I can't count them all, the bugs. Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why there is these bugs, Papa?"

I leaned over to read the explanatory text by the entranceway, but it made me feel dizzy and a little bit dirty.
Jennifer Angus interrogates the languages of pattern, colour and materials found in a range of world textiles. In A Terrible Beauty, the artist reworks these formal elements and delves into culturally- and historically-specific precedents...She creates a [virtual] protagonist with an entomological collection that embodies both the scientific enthusiasms of his time and his own overwrought infatuation with the taxonomies of living organisms.
"She thinks bugs look very interesting," I offered.

"Me too," agreed my daughter. Because my wife and I had admonished her not to touch anything, she clasped her hands behind her back as she wandered from room to room, inclining her head toward especially tantalizing objects iridescent carapaces. "This one is with sparkles," she told me. "But I no touch them."

The radially-symmetrical arrays of ornate insect corpses were pinned from floor to ceiling, corner to corner, line to jamb. As usual, the Magical Creator of the Universe had done a bang-up job -- the whorls, spatters and lines of colour that detailed every wide wing and curlicue leg segment were spectacular, matching between species but each unique, a panoply of hues from smurf blue to Oz gold.

"This one is a leaf," pointed out my daughter, sitting on her haunches.

We had a discussion about natural camouflage, and her eyes widened as she tested out the unfamiliar word. "That bug is a cafloumas bug, and he is lookine like a leaf but he is not a leaf he is a bug?"


A number of older people with sophisticated clothes and avante garde hairstyles smiled at us and remarked with wonder that she was not afraid. "She loves bugs," I explained. A man and a woman asked if they could take her picture for their magazine, so I said, "Sure."

(I forgot to ask what magazine they represented, so I can offer no hyperlink.)

We came to a spartan wall where beetles had been assembled into sentences, and she immediately identified the ladybugs employed as punctuation. I told her the words were made of beetles and she corrected me to say, "Beetles and ladybugs." I revealed to her that ladybugs were a kind of beetle, and she gasped.

For the next ten minutes she told every adult in her vicinity that ladybugs were a kind of beetle. "A small kind," she elaborated. Our circulations brought us back to my wife, who was chatting with Mistress Bengal and her husband the Scotch Museologist. "Mama, Mama -- ladybugs is a kind of beetle!"

"That's true," agreed my wife.

"I remember!" the child cheered, which is her current way of saying I know.

I was particularly interested in the patterned wallpaper Argus had created for the installation, which featured typical nineteenth century pastoral and domestic scenes in which insects had been inserted in place of some of the people. The prints were quaintly Kafkaesque or perhaps more like sanitized romps of Burroughs, which I enjoyed. Also, I'm a sucker for any engraving-style illustrations as they remind me of the pictures in books I used to read a kid, like old editions of A. A. Milne and Jules Verne.

After the opening we went over to Mistress Bengal and the Scotch Museologist's house for dinner, a kid-friendly serving of macaroni and cheese with ham. Mistress Bengal told a story about how when in New York on business she had been shucked with the job of announcing the arrivals of movie-stars' limousines at a premiere. Each party of super vedettes had been assigned a number, and Mistress Bengal was chastised for supplying the names of the stars along with the number over her wireless headset. Announcing the names was somebody else's gig, and she had been inadvertently "stealing their thunder."

She was just "the Canadian girl." Numbers were her lot.

Mistress Bengal, to whom such games of self-inflating self-importance are boring, was mystified and amused. She complied, of course. Why rock the boat? Star-sucking culture is as weird as star culture. "Here's limo fourteen now," she announced.

The Scotch Museologist introduced the toddler to his drum kit and they proceeded to jam together in the shadow of a life-sized cardboard likeness of an Imperial Stormtrooper in the basement.

My wife bundled the child against the snow and I carried her out to the car, reclining her seat so she could sleep during the drive back to the countryside. She settled into her nest of blankets while I strapped her in, watching me with half-closed eyes. "Papa," she said softly.

"Yes, darling?"

"Ladybugs is a kind of beetle."

And then her head lolled over to one side and she fell asleep. My wife packed in our generous door-prizes from Mistress Bengal (promotional items for the cinematic flop Zathura, including the lushly illustrated original storybook by Chris Van Allsburg and a boardgame) and a tub of take-home macaroni with cheese and ham. Then my wife stuffed her third trimester belly behind the wheel while I burped beer bubbles and wondered whether I should have peed before leaving.

I should have.


Sith Snoopy said...


That was so cute!

"Ladybugs is a type of beetle!"

Your daughter is adorable. :) It's really cool to see a little one start to understand the world. Friends of my husband and I have a 4 year old, and watching her grow up has just been incredible!

Gave your book to two friends at work. One hasn't had a chance to read it yet. The other friend read your book... she totally loved it! She's trying to get her kids to read it, but one isn't into sci-fi, and the other said something about not reading a book by a guy who calls himself "Cheeseburger"! :P My friend is persuasive, so am thinking she will eventually win her kids over.

Gave your book to my parents. I think it's totally tweaking with my Mom's brain. ;) She was asking me all kinds of questions, and I was saying "You'll just have to read it, Mom!"

I did give in and tell her "Yes, he's human. No, he's not on Earth." :)

And yeah, I hate that realization as you are driving away that you should have taken that opportunity to go use the bathroom first!!! :P

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Sith Snoopy,

You're the unstoppable propaganda arm of the SOS effort. Keep up the good work, eh?

I have not decided whether or not to drop the pseudonym for the 2nd Edition. Methinks I might, depending on how much of the crap the editor is able to process away.


Sith Snoopy said...

Unstoppable propaganda... hee-hee. :)

I need to actually push *purchasing* the book, however, else it's not actually going to do you as much good. :P [Maybe after my folks finish the book I can get them to talk to their friends about it...]

I honestly hope that you DON'T drop the Cheeseburger Brown moniker. I TOTALLY love that nickname. :)

anne arkham said...

You've passed it around? I'm afraid to even breathe on mine. I'm convinced it's going to be worth a fortune someday.