We all have activities and traditions unique to our childhood, bringing us back to a certain time, place, and emotional memory. Those activities are usually unique to our families and our culture. For me, the scent of a river and cedar trees, or the sighting of horses and a wooden black fence take me back to my old Kentucky home, as the song goes.
For Elsabé Dixon, raising silkworms in cardboard boxes was a cherished memory of her childhood in Pretoria, South Africa, a tradition missing from her current life in Northern Virginia. Many years ago, after moving to the area, she shared her longing with a cousin, who responded by mailing her some silkworm eggs with a note saying, “Get over it.”
In preparation for her current installation at Artisphere, Dixon investigated the 5,000-year-old agricultural tradition of farming silkworms its value in response to modern environmental depletions. The magic and ingenuity of Dixon’s beloved silkworm is being lost as synthetic means have largely replaced silk. But “Live/Life,” in the Artist in Residence Studio of Artisphere through February 22, educates viewers on this insect cycle while allowing them the opportunity to both participate in its process and collaborate with the artist.
As part of Dixon’s five-month residency at Artisphere, the artist holds tea talks in the studio every Sunday afternoon. During my visit, the subject of discussion was “systems of construction.” Dixon has found that sericulture, or the raising of silkworms for silk production in which silk fluids respond to air, is similar to the use of plastic injection molds in industrial design. Underscoring this relationship, Dixon’s installation recycles industrial forms to create the environment in which the silkworm will spin its cocoon and metamorphose into a moth.
Constructed onto the wall as well as a 3-D canopy, Dixon’s concept is based on microscopic photographs of silkworm particles. Recycled materials like rubber and cut-up cardboard paper towel holders create individualized spaces for the worms to spin their cocoons; in the natural world, they’d have sought crevices and corners to aid in making their silky oval spheres. The resulting appearance in Dixon’s studio looks much like a systematic hive for the silkworms to do their work, and for viewers to immerse themselves in a simulated agricultural environment that doubles as minimalist sculpture.
Once out of their cocoons, the sole focus of the silkworms’ work is to mate. The long-bodied males quickly flutter their wings and dance about to entice the larger females, who will die after laying their eggs. The moths do little flying about in the space, and visitors need not worry about their clothes being devoured; so vital is their quest to domesticate that they won’t eat until the mating is accomplished. They cling and weave in and out of the nooks of their cardboard and rubber home, finding each other along the way. The resulting eggs will be refrigerated for later, or exchanged with other silkworm farms to keep breeding healthy. As the moths perish, the accumulated wings—-what Dixon refers to as “sericulture detritus”—-will become the basis for the remainder of the installation, a floor piece for visitors to return and see.
Dixon is an insatiably curious conversationalist. Her project is as much about engaging visitors in discussions as it is a physical work-in-progress, and she collaborates with visiting artists on Tuesdays and Thursdays to find other creative endeavors for her silkworms. Collaborations so far have yielded new sculptural environments for the silkworms as well as their participation in a performance piece, crawling along the body of the guest artist. “Live/Life” implies that this studio space, while under Dixon’s direction, is a living environment that necessitates an intellectual and visceral exchange with visitors. The only domesticated insect in the world that relies on human interaction and cultivation, the silkworm and its work in the studio calls viewer’s attention to our own processes, wrought from the inexplicable connection between sensory memory and, particularly for Dixon, a return to the familiar.
Photos courtesy of Artisphere