According to chaos theory, a single flap from the wings of a butterfly can set off a string of events leading to major global changes. It’s no coincidence that the butterfly is the chosen catalyst in this theoretical scenario; symbolically, butterflies have been a remarkably durable representation of change, transition, transformation, and resurrection in the human imagination. In Erika Harrsch’s exhibition “Under One Sky” at Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery, butterflies – and their potential to transform the world – are a primary visual motif.
In Harrsch’s work, butterflies represent fragility, transformation, rebirth, and hope. Throughout the show, her insects – all made of paper – are adorned with the spectrum of hues and images found on various world currencies, linking together economics and ecology as well as the natural and the man-made in a complex web of interconnected systems. In a sculptural piece titled Eurospecimens (Papilionumismia Ephemerae Europeae) (2011), 23 individually framed butterflies are displayed in entomology boxes, each printed like the European currencies that were supplanted by the Euro. These dead currencies, each the bygone symbol of an individual country’s wealth, went extinct with the hope and risk of tying together Europe’s collective fortunes. At a time when global economic calamity is still a real threat, the piece is a clever reminder of the delicacy of world markets and the sweeping changes that can affect them.
This point is driven home further in a piece titled Greconumismia Frugalites (2012). Here, four butterflies printed with imagery from Greek money are displayed with two larger insects printed with imagery from the Euro, a clear reminder of the current crisis of Greece’s failing economy, which threatens to destabilize all of Europe. Harrsch relies on viewers’ knowledge of complex current events and their catastrophic implications.
The threat of disaster, particularly man-made disaster, permeates the show. In Eurospecimens and Greconumismia Frugalites, catastrophe and extinction are glimpsed, hinted at as real possibilities without overwhelming the subtle or understated nuances of these pieces. In Harrsch’s two-dimensional work, disaster takes center stage. Melt (2012) is a swirl of gorgeous apocalyptic energy. A dense grey plume dominates the background of a broad landscape. Jellyfish encroach on a sagging multi-colored mountain or glacier in the foreground and a jet of money-colored butterflies burst out of a churning inky black spiral. Global warming and disasters from oil production are obvious touchstones as the finger of blame for world calamity points right back at man and his money. For the first time, however, Harrsch gives us butterflies that inspire hope. As the insects ascend and distance themselves from the inky spirals, they become less encumbered by black residue. They are still made of money, however, so it’s a bit confusing as to whether we should infer that money could save the world, or if the butterflies are transforming into a more personal symbol of liberation for the artist. The message is unclear.
In a series of less grand two-dimensional pieces, a similar theme is in play. Well (2011) and Spill (2011) feature overt oil disasters with American money butterflies emerging from the murky blackness. Again, there is something hopeful in the flight of the butterflies, even if that hopefulness seems incongruous with the political tone of the picture. Drift (2012) offers a less complex symbolic structure, and formally, it is one of the most interesting images in the show. This dynamic composition is filled with silhouetted paratroopers, military helicopters, flying jellyfish, and, for the first time, butterflies that are not decorated like money. These elements create a swirling constellation around the page that is at once respectful of and untethered to the laws of gravity under a sky that is like an ocean. Even though the imagery is secular, there’s something almost religious in the depiction of rise and fall. It’s a wonderful commotion, more chaotic than the linear theory of a world of upheaval born from the flap of a wing.