A Terrible Beauty
"This wallpaper has a kind of sub-pattern…in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so–I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design," reads The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899).
Over a century later, Gilman’s classic novella of a woman imprisoned in her husband’s colonial mansion on rest cure for her emotional disease, still resonates for the modern individual. Haunted at night by the recurrent patterns of her wallpaper, in which she imagines a "creeping woman" trying to escape, the protagonist anxiously wrestles to bring her own domestication to consciousness.
"By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still."
It is the soothing yet insidious quality of the seamless pattern, with no beginning or end that "A Terrible Beauty" poignantly explores.
When artist Jennifer Angus’ mother died, her father decided to sell their house and employed an interior designer to repaint all the walls. When Angus returned to her unrecognizable house, she describes feeling as if the "memory of [her] mother had been wiped out."
So she set about recreating the structure of her childhood home inside the North Dakota Museum of Art, but instead of wallpaper, Angus meticulously affixed 15,000 giant bugs into kaleidoscopic patterns on the walls. It is along these same lines that "A Terrible Beauty" is curated at the Textile Museum in Toronto, except the "house" is a simulation of a Victorian era mansion, belonging to an eccentric bug collector, complete with dark wooden floorboards and curio boxes.
At first glance the rooms appear normal, even tasteful, in their sparse decoration. But as you get nearer to the walls, figures begin to emerge in the geometric patterns and you realise they are actually exotic beetles, elytra and leaf bugs the size of your palms.
"The bugs are like memory to me," Angus reveals, choosing a deeply appropriate metaphor. Indeed any suitable examination of our own history, both personal and collective, can’t ignore the patterns that skulk beneath every surface.
Whether by way of human nature, or the more recent problem of industrialization, we have become a society whose central mission is disambiguation. That is to say, uncertainty is felt as the archenemy of efficiency and, accordingly, we attempt to domesticate chaos at every turn.
Of course, as with all great stories of repression, what goes down must come up. While repetition may keep us still during the day, lulling us to sleep with its symmetry, at night the soul creeps out, determined to liberate itself from our undisputed habits.
"A Terrible Beauty" reminds us of the potency of the unconscious. The insects can be seen as its foot soldiers who possess a dark but transformative power. As with the unconscious urges, when pinned down into place, they are divested not only of their danger but their genius as well. They become beautiful but impotent specimens, objects in a pretentious collection of uniformity.
This is the price that a template culture exacts; that in exchange for a beautiful "front design," the mysterious life remains unlived. Indeed, the terrible reality of this exhibit is that, in addition to being beautifully assembled art, it is also a mortuary.