Artist Elsabé Dixon grew up raising silkworms in cardboard boxes as a child in South Africa. Now based in Virginia, Dixon has made her childhood hobby the source of her art, now on display in a unique residency and installation called LIVE/LIFE at Arlington’s Artisphere through February 22.
In the Artisphere studio, Dixon and helpers first constructed an environment for domesticated silkworms (Bombyx mori) to live out a life cycle – hatching from eggs to caterpillars, eating mulberry leaves, spinning cocoons, pupating, mating and dying – and then created sculpture using what was left behind, including twigs, empty cocoons, salt and even silkworm poop.
Dixon sees the life cycle of the Bombyx mori – the only truly domesticated insect in the world – as a means of investigating many aspects of life. The first and most obvious is the ephemeral and ever-changing nature of life, but the work examines many other issues, including our relationships with society, nature and the built environment.
There are no barriers between the insects and the audience here. Visitors in the earlier months of the residency were free to touch the caterpillars and the moths. When I visited earlier in January, the moths were all dead, but I was able to touch the silk cocoons left behind.
The sculptural installation that Dixon has constructed, first for the silkworms to live in and then using their products and detritus, is based on microscopic photographs of silkworm particles. Made from materials including rubber, cut-up cardboard paper towel tubes, discarded silk cocoons, mulberry branches and, yes, piles of caterpillar poop, the installation looks organic, natural, and utterly at home in its modern-art setting.
LIVE/LIFE is open to the public Thursday and Friday evenings as well as Sunday afternoons, when the artist welcomes visitors to join in conversations with her and others in the field of art, medicine, engineering and food production.