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“Catherine Chalmers:

Food Chain”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art

to Jan. 8, 2001

For most of the ’90s, Catherine Chalmers has used photography to document animals devouring one another. “Sex: Before, During, After” records the mating ritual of the praying mantis, in which a female copulates with a male, then bites off his head. “Food Chain” begins with a tomato being eaten by caterpillars; in turn, the caterpillars are eaten by praying mantises, and the mantises are eventually devoured by a frog and a tarantula. In Chalmers’ third series—”Pinkies”—blind, hairless, and helpless baby mice get gulped down by a frog and a snake.

Chalmers created each scenario, painstakingly raising the animals and placing predator and prey into a bare white space. Then she let nature take its course, keeping her camera at the ready. Typically, her images present events that took only a minute or two to unfold. But her preparations were time-consuming and elaborate: several years of raising animals in her New York City loft and extended periods of waiting for one animal to tear into another.

I first became aware of Chalmers’ work in 1998, when I heard a lengthy segment about her on National Public Radio’s This American Life. I was fascinated, and, to be honest, a little revolted. These feelings were, I believe, intensified by my location at the time: driving through Utah, as the sun began to set on the nation’s most isolated stretch of interstate. As I drifted in and out of the range of Ira Glass’ radio program, I sensed that survival of the fittest is more than just a theoretical construct. One flat tire in the beautiful but pitiless desert could have turned me into a meal myself.

That feeling is heightened when I finally see Chalmers’ work on display. Her photographs are larger, and more vivid, than I had imagined. On the wall, Chalmers’ caterpillars rapidly reduce the tomato to a bloody-looking pulp. The same smear of red re-emerges as a praying mantis tears hungrily into a caterpillar’s guts. Nearby, a snake squeezes a baby mouse to death, then swallows it. Chalmers’ large prints are hyperreal: The tomato shines, the frog’s moist skin glistens, and the mantis’s head cocks slightly, as if it were saying, “You lookin’ at me?”

Although the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Hemicycle Gallery has only enough space for about half of the images reproduced in the exhibition’s catalog, the setting actually heightens the effect of Chalmers’ work. The photographs are hung at regular intervals across the length of the gallery’s semicircular wall. Seen from a distance, the wall mimics an unfurled spool of film or a zoetrope, the spinning, drumlike precursor of the motion picture. Such cinematic trappings heighten the narrative momentum of Chalmers’ photographs and, as a result, the seeming inevitability of the Darwinian actions they record.

But Chalmers’ photographs, although arresting, are more functional than artistic. Her white backdrop is blank and clinical; her lights glare, casting only the most uninteresting shadows. Superficially, Chalmers’ portrayal of animals suggests the work of posed-dog photographer William Wegman, but Wegman’s silky images of Weimaraners exude a subtle gray scale that’s entirely absent from Chalmers’ scenarios. The frame-by-frame progression of Chalmers’ narratives suggests the stop-action photographs of Eadweard Muybridge or Harold Edgerton, but because both men worked in black and white decades ago, the feel of their work is very different. In the end, the only precedent I can think of is the antiseptic photographs taken by laboratory scientists to illustrate peer-reviewed papers.

It comes as little surprise, then, to hear Chalmers’ answer when I ask her which photographers she considers influences. She doesn’t really have any, she explains. “I never studied photographic history or technique,” she says. For her, photography is little more than a convenient medium for capturing the behaviors of her animals. Originally a painter, Chalmers switched to photography only because it happened to fit her conceptual needs. So it’s probably fairer to classify Chalmers as a conceptual artist than as a photographer.

But what about those concepts?

When Chalmers began her animal studies, by raising a colony of flies, she felt compelled to let them die naturally, rather than killing them, she says. Only later did she begin to feel comfortable putting predator and prey together. When she did, she tried to offer as prey the individuals that were injured or sickly and thus unlikely to survive for very long anyway. She also made a point of constructing her “stage” so that either predator or prey could run away.

“Once you have live animals, you put your heart and soul into keeping them alive,” she says. “At first, I was really horrified with the idea of them dying. I found myself procrastinating, doing anything to avoid setting it in motion—washing dishes, anything. But I realized that it was central to what I was doing.”

One time, Chalmers placed a pregnant female mouse in a cage with a male—a male who apparently believed he was not the father of the female’s brood. When the babies were born, “he butchered them,” Chalmers says. “He didn’t just kill them; he dismembered them. It was a foot-deep cage, but there were heads, feet, and [other] body parts on the top screen. It was such an incredible act of brutality that changed my vision. I felt like I was to blame. It was pretty upsetting.”

Doth the artist protest too much? Perhaps. After all, Chalmers has made her career on the deaths of animals. But so have some Nobel scientists. And Chalmers has a point when she says that the fate of her animals (and vegetables) probably would have been at least as brutal had she never intervened.

Chalmers seems to occupy an unstable middle ground between the makers of nature documentaries and PETA activists, offering an approach that conflates objectivity and subjectivity, the natural and the unnatural. On the one hand, Chalmers says that, unlike nature photographers, she has sought “to take things out of the natural arena. I did not photograph animals in the wild or in a cage. I wanted to bring them to a neutral ground, unencumbered by anything. Nature photography often ends up pitting nature as the ‘other.’ It accentuates the split between us and nature. I didn’t want that.”

On the other hand, Chalmers clearly believes that civilized society stands apart from the natural world. She says that one of her main themes is the separation in modern life between killing and eating. “We eat burgers but don’t kill the cow,” she says. “That difference was at the heart of the project. Apart from a few scavengers, predators eat live food. With my dog, the more something squeals, the more excited he gets. He’s the opposite of where civilization has taken us. ‘Food Chain’ gets us in touch with the natural world and where we came from.”

Then again, Chalmers’ work isn’t really natural; it was always Chalmers who brought predator and prey together (including some predators and prey that do not typically see each other in the wild). Sure, the animals ate each other, given the opportunity—but Chalmers was the essential catalyst.

And although she tries to avoid it, Chalmers’ work contains an undercurrent of anthropomorphism. The frog looks rather Buddhalike, and the praying mantis possesses a swiveling head that lends it a distinctly human quality. Chalmers acknowledges that her experiences raising the animals did, to a certain extent, color her view of them. “The praying mantises took great care to raise,” she says. “I became much more attached to them than to the caterpillars. [The caterpillars] bit me a lot.”

In fact, Chalmers’ most recent work—which is not on display at the Corcoran—explicitly uses animal forms to explore some quintessentially human behavior. Using a colony of American cockroaches (and, for the first time, actively killing them), Chalmers has sought to re-enact the ways in which humans kill other humans. She has conducted mass hangings, burnings at the stake, electrocutions, and drownings. She has also painted some roaches to look like more appealing insects such as ladybugs and bees, then placed them in naturalistic settings to be photographed. Her idea is to force viewers to examine their own notions about which species are “good” and “bad.” “We hate the animals that scavenge off us—rats, roaches, mice, pigeons—while the ones we like best, we displace for our own purposes,” she says.

Documenting animals “on a neutral ground, unencumbered by anything” while also using them to explore the deeper motivations of the human soul constitutes the biggest contradiction of Chalmers’ art. I ask Chalmers what she wants viewers to think of “Food Chain.” Her answer is modest and, it seems to me, rather reasonable: She wants to remind us that there’s lots of stuff going on in the shadows around us.

“It would be nice if people extended their ideas to include the basic processes of nature,” she says. “We have civilized our ways to exclude the basic functioning of the natural world. Something as simple as the food chain—people never see it. They may see a bird eat a worm if they’re lucky, but rarely do they see anything more than that.” CP