Tintin Wulia | 9 February 2021
As an artist/researcher, I began working with insects – especially mosquitoes – when I started focusing on the border in 2007. My method is partly to work with what I call ‘iconic objects from the border’ to incite my viewers’ – or participants’ – emotions and thoughts about borders and their complexities.
Mosquitoes, perhaps the most significant human killers, are also an iconic thing – they incite our emotions and thoughts. They are also associated with the border: countless armies have been undermined by mosquitoes at the border, making warfare quite expensive. This is why research on mosquitoes has been entangled with the military, especially the U.S. military. Upon discovery of DDT’s insecticidal properties in 1939, it became a weapon of choice against the mosquito for the U.S. military throughout World War II. It later also became part of their development aid worldwide, until the side effects of DDT accumulated, prompting Rachel Carson to write her influential book Silent Spring (1962), a significant contribution to the worldwide environmental movement as we know it now.
Mosquitoes also fascinate me because of their metamorphosis. I wonder what differentiates metamorphosis from death. In my grandfather’s case, who was forcefully disappeared during the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66, our family feels unsure whether my grandfather died since his body was never found. In insects’ metamorphosis, the old ‘body’ – the larval or pupal skin – is left behind, but a new life seems to arise from it.
What moved me to make Some Memory Prevails (2019) was my affective thinking about the border, death, and the future. Butterflies, another iconic thing, may feel more poetic than mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are not less stunningly colorful, but to perceive this, we need a microscope, so it is not as straightforward. Butterflies’ metamorphosis is also more familiar to many: a caterpillar molts into a chrysalis before emerging as a completely different creature, a butterfly.
What happens inside this chrysalis is mind-boggling. A caterpillar is a destruction machine: some caterpillars eat so much that they increase their original weight up to 10,000 times in under three weeks. Then, it turns into a chrysalis and practically start digesting itself. A mechanism of self–nonself recognition crucial in immune responses is incited in the chrysalis while cell clusters called ‘imaginal discs’ start growing rapidly. This ‘scrap and build’ process decomposes the caterpillar’s body into a kind of soup, where the cells in imaginal discs network to build body parts of a ‘new’ butterfly.
Even more intriguing: a study has shown that some memory is retained throughout this process. So, some memory does prevail, across the border, through death, into the future.
I am providing three contexts below to provide readers with an imaginal space around Some Memory Prevails.
The butterfly in the work, Papilio ulysses, is a species spread in what we currently know as the bordered territories of Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. It is a swallowtail butterfly whose anatomy allows migration across a longer distance. In Australia, the ulysses is iconic in Queensland tourism, as an emblem of Dunk Island. In Indonesia, a ulysses species is also found in Buru island, one of the main sites of concentration camps during the Suharto government.
Unlike the norm of displaying specimens for an exhibition, I deliberately do not try to pretend that the specimen is alive. I suspend it upside down, so there can be no question that it is dead. This unusual display method shows the ulysses’s verso side, which is an entirely different look than the characteristic electric blue wings that make the species famous. One of the best reactions to this was a viewer who saw it and spontaneously exclaimed, “Wow, is that the same butterfly?” In a way, perhaps I am showing a double identity, its two faces, one of which is mostly unknown. It is impossible to see the work in detail without getting your fragmented image reflected by the geodesically-arranged mirroring plates. In fact, all the surrounding environment is captured and reflected by the mirrors and the glass dome, making it a part of the work.
In José Saramago’s novel Death at Intervals (2008), one day, in an unnamed country, death simply stops happening. Great news, isn’t it? After all, the wish to be immortal is as old as human civilization. The excitement did not last long as citizens immediately realize that members of their families were at the edge of dying. They suffer but could not die. One of these people in limbo asks his family for a sort of euthanasia: death still happens in the next country, so as soon as they cross the border, they would be dead. However, new babies also keep being born, threatening the pension system and population balance, amongst other problems. In short, as one of Saramago’s characters says, without death, “we have no future.”
The study I mentioned shows that some memory prevails through metamorphosis – into the future. The specific experiment in this study was to generate a traumatic association with a particular smell. The adult specimen that emerges from the chrysalis retains an aversion to the smell. Studies have also shown that trauma inheritance can happen epigenetically. In the case of mosquitoes, this epigenetically inherited trauma is beneficial for mosquitoes’ adaptability and survival. Curiously to me, in the case of mammals, discussions on inherited trauma dwell on the inheritance of diseases and disorders – in other words, about mortality – instead of survivability.
Mosquitoes have been on earth for around 70 million years; butterflies, around 56 million years. Our species, Homo sapiens, only emerged at most 300,000 years ago. As it turns out, we are also a destruction machine – a Homo caterpillaris – the largest contributor to earth’s 6th mass extinction: we have managed to accelerate extinctions 1000 times more than its average pace. If some memory prevails in our future body, most likely in the form of trauma, will we discuss it in the framing of immortality, or rather as an insight for adapting – learning, pragmatically – to survive?
Artist/researcher Tintin Wulia’s international exhibitions include a solo pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and her work is part of the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum’s collection, amongst others. During her interdepartmental postdoc fellowship at University of Gothenburg’s Centre on Global Migration – working with HDK-Valand/Academy of Art and Design and the School of Global Studies (2018-20) – she was also a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow at the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit, NMNH(SI), led by entomologist Yvonne-Marie Linton.