If you’re in New York City, you should check out my friend Guillermo’s show, which opens tonight at the Milk Gallery in Chelsea…yours truly wrote the exhibition essay, which I’ve included below the invite.
Nature can still astound us. Who knows, maybe it’s the only thing that can genuinely astound us in an age of global spectacle, of exhibitionism, voyeurism, and an ever-growing disconnect between images and the things they depict. Usually we associate that awe with upheaval and destruction rather than peace or wonder: a tsunami in the south Pacific, a hurricane over New Orleans, an earthquake underneath Haiti. Every day we awaken to fresh images of a world consuming itself—although, tellingly, what we think of as being destoyed is not the natural world, but our world. Bodies washed out to sea, buildings crushed or flooded, the fester of disease and death that follows any major calamity. The counterpoint, of course, is the incredible havoc—revenge?—humanity wreaks on the environment, be it the desertification of north Africa or the deforestation of Amazonia, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef or the ever-increasing extinction of entire species. For all its vastness and power, the world we live in is also extraordinarily fragile, delicate even, and few things symbolize this delicacy more than the butterfly, its brilliantly colored wings as translucent as stained glass, its body so light that a fluff of breeze buffets it about like a raft shooting whitewater rapids.
Yet this ethereality, like so much else in our understanding of the world, is, if not an illusion, then more complicated than appearances would seem to indicate. This is especially true for the king of North American butterflies, the Monarch—so named, according to entomologist Samuel Scudder, because it “rules a vast domain.” Vast indeed: each year the Monarch fans out from a few concentrated winter refuges in the Pacific Southwest and Mexico to blanket the entire United States and southern Canada. The longest of these migrations reaches from the Oyamel forests in the Mexican states of Michoacán and Mexico to Ontario and Manitoba and back again, a five-thousand-mile journey that spans the life of four or five generations, and whose navigation remains a mystery to modern science. Once back in Mexico, millions of Monarchs shroud the sacred firs in jewel-toned Rastafarian beards, waiting out the winter in a remarkable state known as diapause. Unlike hibernating bats and bears, whose metabolic processes actually slow down while they sleep through the cold months, diapausal animals remain active: they eat, they sleep, they fly. They just don’t age. Though most Monarchs live barely two months, those born at the end of summer can live seven, eight, nine months, a Methusalan generation awaiting the return of warm weather to head north again, and breed, and die.
These are the butterflies Guillermo de Zamacona has captured in Project: Monarch—animate yet living in a state of suspended animation, which condition is mimicked by the camera’s habit of snatching moments out of time. In some ways, the thousands of butterflies that flap and waft their way through these images are no more significant than a single one—there’s nothing transformative in their accumulation, as when millions of raindrops gather into a flash flood or the spark from a lightning strike erupts into a forest fire; nor do they build something through collective labor, an ants’ nest or beehive. Rather, each of these butterflies is as important as any other, such that a thousand instances of incandescent beauty are captured in every one of Zamacona’s photographs. It’s only fitting, then, that the human portion of the pictures be equally beautiful: if you’re going to gild the lily, after all, you might as well do it with 24-karat gold. Indeed, calling them pictures of butterflies is a bit misleading, since they’re actually pictures of people in which hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of butterflies just happen to be visible. Nature’s bounty is juxtaposed with human beauty—models, couture, styling, an acrobat’s flip or Catholic iconography—not exactly in competition with each other, but not quite symbiosis either. Rather, like the flight of the butterflies themselves, the delicate balance created in these images is transitory, an intersection between nature and culture, past and future, that captivates us yet refuses, both literally and metaphorically, to cohere into a fixed shape before it’s gone. The only constant isn’t visual but rather aural, namely, the omnipresent sussuration of the butterflies’ wings, which fills the air like leaves rustling in a breeze or water spilling down the side of a mountain or murmuring voices heard through a wall, speaking a language we don’t understand. The human imagination tends to monumental acts, but it can never be bigger than the world that made us. But sometimes it can make the world a little bigger, and when that happens there’s more room for all of us to live.