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February 11, 2005 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed

Beetles in midst of an oddly fab forum
By David Pagel , Special to The Times

Beetles that eat carrion, clothing and furniture star in Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver's "In Search of a Myopic's Leitmotif." Like movie stars, Dermestid museorum (Linnaeus) beetles keep a low profile. Visitors to the show at Machine Project, an artist-run, weekends-only gallery in Silver Lake, must look closely and sometimes wait to see the insects in action. In the meantime, Taber and Weaver provide plenty to look at — and more to ponder — in their intelligently amusing piece of storefront theater.

Just inside the front door lies a big hollow tree trunk made of Styrofoam, plaster and wood. Its base faces the shop window, forming a circular, root-framed opening that attracts the eyes of passersby as effectively as any big-budget window display. Peering into the 14-foot-long trunk is like looking into the wrong end of a telescope: Distance expands exponentially and objects at arm's length appear to be far off.

Eight proscenium arches installed in the tree amplify this effect. Behind the last one lies a spotlighted diorama of a vast landscape, its craggy peaks and sandy expanses compressing environments ordinarily separated by great distances into a space no bigger than a small easel painting.

Five pencil drawings hung on the walls around the tree depict insects whose limbs, armor and mandibles have been replaced with modern items that serve similar functions, including maritime navigational tools, art nouveau lamps and shipping trunks. Strains of Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle" play intermittently over hidden speakers, adding to the odd drama.

The worlds-within-worlds structure of the installation takes an even more curious turn when you look through a screen-covered skylight cut in the tree bark above the diorama and see the beetles squirming in their elaborately decorated cage. You don't need a hyperactive imagination to begin spinning stories that might make sense of the show's unlikely components: real bugs on a small stage in a fake tree in a gallery displaying old-fashioned drawings of oversized, prosthetically enhanced bugs.

Two pages of single-spaced exhibition notes provide no solace for visitors who like their art simple and distinct from life's untidiness. They identify the tree's bark as Cinchona, a source of the anti-malarial quinine, which played a large part in making colonialism possible. The beetles, used by taxidermists and natural history museums to strip bones, have been known to escape their containers and devour entire collections. Juxtaposed, the stories of conquering Europeans and insatiable insects speak volumes about creation and destruction, as well as the limits of control and the reality of unintended consequences.

The tale expands to include early germ warfare, romantic opera, budding nationalism, Enlightenment taxonomy and fever dreams. The climax of the opera and the symptoms of malaria follow similar rhythms. Visually the words "aria" and "malaria" also echo one another.

Despite the exhibition's rich metaphorical possibilities and its embrace of far-reaching (or farfetched) parables, Taber and Weaver never let things spin out of control. Their work is based in the conviction that truth is stranger than fiction and more fascinating than art, if only our imaginations are able to keep up with its dizzying twists and turns.

Machine Project, 1200-D North Alvarado St., (213) 483-8761, through Feb. 20. Saturday and Sunday only. Artists lecture, 3 p.m. Feb. 20.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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