The first thing you notice entering Elsabe Dixon’s immersive Wings, Weavers and Worms isn’t the curlicue shapes on the walls or tent-like sculptural form in the middle of the room, but the ambient noise. The lobby of the newly-opened Anacostia Arts Center is quiet, but Dixon’s gallery space has an energy about it – a phantom presence if you will – that manifests itself with a continually audible snap, crackle and pop. Cereal bowls are absent, but as I walk closer to a series of open crates along one wall, the sound intensifies, revealing the source of the vibrations: silkworms. Yes, thousands of silkworms are munching contently on their breakfast (or is it lunch?), waiting patiently as they’ve done for thousands of years for artistic directions. My editor has sent me on some madcap assignments before (creative juices flow in DC after all), but a room full of silkworms tops anything in recent memory. As part of the LUMEN8ANCOSTIA festival taking place in Anacostia, Dixon has been given gallery space within the Center for the next five weeks to create what she terms “organic movement in form” akin to a more traditional painting. Before I know it, I’m in the middle of a crash course covering the domestic art of sericulture.
Before describing the work and Dixon’s intentions, a bit of biology and some cultural history would be most welcome. Dixon informs me that silkworms are a domesticated genus of worms and have been “farmed” for over five thousand years in a process known as sericulture. The creatures begin their life cycle in worm form before transforming into moths that eventually breed and lay eggs before dying. As they enter the pupa stage (the time they transform from larva to moth) they weave a fibrous cocoon which serves as an outer layer of protection over the shell in which the metamorphosis occurs. To build the cocoon the silkworm locates an intersection of leaf and branch, literally feeling the corner with both ends of its body, and spends exactly three days and three nights spinning protein-based fibers around its body to build its soft casing (In commercial applications, this fibrous “home” is harvested, eventually becoming fabric for the apparel industry). Dixon also makes use of the silk in two-dimensional form by placing the larva on a place of glass or other flat surface at the moment its ready to spin. The worm locates the edge of the glass and, thinking it has found a corner, begins to weave across the surface of the plane. When complete three days later, Dixon removes the worm and is left with a “sheet” of silk (the texture of which feels like thin, handmade paper) that can be gently pulled away from the surface.
It is this silk “paper making” technique that draws Dixon to her early childhood memories. Born in South Africa of French-Huguenot descent, she explains to me that the raising of silkworms is something most children learn there at an early age, and in her mind this knowledge forms part of a cultural value system that teaches children to respect nature, encourage creativity and inspire wonderment. She is well-versed in manipulating traditional media like paint and ceramics, but that knowledge came later, through formal education. When her third child was born (here in the US) a cousin came to visit and Dixon lamented that her children weren’t experiencing the same cultural value system she experienced as a child. Her cousin brought up their childhood memories of silkworms and a creative light bulb burst on in her mind, inspiring her to discern how silk could be harnessed as an artistic form. Silk now plays an elemental role in her work with more traditional materials relegated to supporting roles.
In describing her work as an “organic movement in form”, Dixon notes that silk moves through air or across a textured surface in the same way that acrylics or ink seem to undulate across the canvas. The similarities end there however, because using silk has freed her from thinking only in terms of academics, creating the possibility to view ecology, sociology and even biology through an artistic lens. In our interview, we continually touch on the notion of systems and how the daily pulse of life is channeled by the myriad of systems within our lives. Time-based systems such as our life cycle are apparent (we, like the silkworm, go through bodily changes ending in death), but this installation itself, with its worms, steel and cardboard components, represents pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial systems of manufacturing. The gallery space – the walls, floor and cubic volume — makes up another system that influences the shape of the work and how it ebbs and flows. Even Anacostia, the neighborhood geography and its networks of residents, will in some ways influence the dimensions of this piece. Dixon walks the surrounding streets on a daily basis to collect leaves from the surrounding Mulberry trees (silkworms’ only nourishment are these leaves), and in doing so converses with her neighbors, ever so slightly touching upon the social systems that define this close-knit community. These neighbors are invited to stop by, experience the exhibit and perhaps even participate in building the work. Indeed, she doesn’t feel this type of project, with this specific neighborhood component would be as effective in some other District neighborhoods that don’t have such a strong sense of community.
The day of our meeting occurred early in this artistic process, and just a few silkworms had begun to spin their cocoons. The evolution of the installation – its continually changing nature — is one of its key elements. As more and more people come to interact with the piece (the artist has invited both school groups and neighborhood associations), creating a, “collaboration between human and silkworm,” the very nature of the work will evolve. Some viewers will be intrigued, some disgusted, but that is the chance she’s taking when she, “puts people and insects together and see what happens.” We’ll be back next month to chronicle her experience and see the result!
“Wings, Weavers and Worms” will run through August 10, 2013 at the Anacostia Arts Center. The exhibit is viewable during opening hours Mondays through Saturdays. Elsabe Dixon (or an assistant) will be on-hand tending the silkworms on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays from 11am – 5pm. For more information visit the Arts Center website here and the artist’s personal website here.