IN PERSON: Marie Sjøvold and Ludvig Friberg
In Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915), the protagonist wakes up one day, transformed into a beetle and alienated from his family. In Marie Sjøvold and Ludvig Friberg’s exhibition In Person, it is rather the other way around: here we see insects waking up, transformed into human beings. Or rather, we see insects acting in a manner that suddenly makes us recognize something human in them and inevitably ascribe them with emotions, intentions, and thoughts.
At first glance the installation calls to mind the classical presentation of insects we are familiar with from zoological museums. The animals have been transplanted from their natural environment, isolated against a neutral, white background, and mounted in small, wooden boxes with glass lids stating the species and the year. Lying lifeless on their backs with their legs in the air, they seem to have just been exposed to lethal ether and to almost have been waiting to be impaled on a pin. Upon closer inspection, however, viewers notice that the bumblebee is in fact breathing and is slowly beginning to move the hind of its body back and forth, that the butterfly’s antennae are vibrating, and that, almost imperceptibly, one of the fly’s legs can be seen to be twitching, and then another leg. For instead of attaching the insects to a piece of cardboard, Sjøvold and Friberg have opted to preserve them as living images: their insect boxes do not contain dead, pierced insects, but animals that slowly awaken, stand up on their legs, and start moving. The boxes thereby serve as frames for petite narratives about sleep and awakening, about life and death, about helplessness and quiet victories. The bumblebee, after peering drowsily about and cautiously trying things out, manages to extend its legs into the air and then, an eternity later, manages to turn around, while the ant effectively, resolutely, and somewhat peevishly gets on its feet, adjusts its antennae, and starts getting its bearings in its new surroundings. The fly struggles mightily, going from wildly flailing its legs about to resting in spells of almost deathly quiet; the centipede twists itself over onto its stomach through an act of sheer contortionism; the butterfly elegantly extends its wings but must concede that it lacks the energy to fly, so that it instead merely jumps a few centimetres above the ground, clumsily and shamefacedly; the poor dung beetle, for its part, is not even able to turn around but must shuffle off into eternity on its back, no longer recognizable as a dung beetle but reduced to an abstract form.
The point of Sjøvold and Friberg isolating the insects from their natural context is not to classify them and identify the general traits that define the species, as a zoologist would have done, but rather to examine each specimen’s individual traits – its personality – up close. Marie Sjøvold has primarily worked as a photographer and to a lesser extent as a video artist, while Ludvig Friberg works in the film industry as a visual effects artist. By using film in their installation, the pair are able to depict the house fly, the butterfly, the bumblebee, the grasshopper, the weevil, the dung beetle, the sloe bug, the ant, and the centipede as active individuals that may cheekily stroll out of the frame, that seem well aware of the viewers’ presence, and that deliberately attempt to communicate with them: the grasshopper stares into the camera from the beginning, and when it gets on its feet, it butts the lens with its head; the weevil stamps its forelegs threateningly, like a raging bull; and the sloe bug turns it head curiously towards the viewers and sends an exploratory antenna in their direction, before it turns completely around and gesticulates wildly with its forelegs.
The insects’ anthropomorphism and their seeming engagement with the viewer make us look at them with fresh eyes. As Marie Sjøvold puts it:
Insects are regarded as miniature terrorists. They bite, sting, and scratch if you get too close. They multiply like the plague, and they keep you awake at night. An encounter with some insects can even be fatal. Most people have no qualms about killing an insect, about squashing it with a newspaper or with your hands. I mean, how many insects haven’t been killed during a walk through the forest or a drive along the motorway? But who really cares? They’re just insects – there are so many of them… It’s not easy seeing these tiny individuals among the teeming masses and through our fear of small creatures. But if we can show the uniqueness of each of these small, crawling beings, will that create greater tolerance? Do we need individual symbols and heroes in order to understand the masses?
In Person presents us with nine different insects. Zoologists have described over a million now-living insect species, with estimates for the total number of now-living species ranging anywhere from two to thirty million. If we stick to the million species that we know for certain exist, over half of all living organisms come from their ranks. Reasons given for this tremendous diversity among insects include their capacity for metamorphosis, which enables them to use different habitats and food sources depending on where they are in their life cycle. It is no coincidence that Sjøvold and Friberg choose to focus precisely on a class of animals that are characterized by their ability to transform themselves – the theme of metamorphosis is a recurring motif on several levels in their project. The insects are always on the verge of transforming from one state to another – from death to life, from sleep to wakefulness, from inertia to movement, from captive to free. But the process also goes the other way: since the videos play in a loop, it may also seem as though the fly that just regained its mobility and that has left its insect-box captivity behind suddenly lies helpless on its back again only a moment later. Depending on where in the course of events the given videos are when viewers make it to the box in question, they will thereby experience the narrative in an entirely different way.
The project is supported by Arts Council Norway’s Audio and Visual Fund.
Camilla Kragelund (b. 1976 in Denmark) has a graduate degree in modern culture and cultural presentation from the University of Copenhagen, specializing in the field between text and photography. She is the editor-in-chief of the Danish photo magazine FILTER, which typically presents both contemporary photography and older photographic material and which includes various types of photography (such as amateur, artistic, press, fashion, and advertising photography, in addition to scientific and social uses of the medium). She also edits publications for Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin.