Lost in the gallery: Ips typographus in contemporary art.

(this post is a work in progress)

When in 2019 our former family forest got cleared, me, nor my mother – the owner of the land – had heard of the European spruce bark beetle. Even up til now, I’ve never actually seen an Ips typographus, apart from some withered larvae remains. Most people encounter the beetle by its symptoms – dead, or dying spruce – or by the most compelling evidence of its passing: the tunnel-patterned pieces of bark littered on the ground.

Ips typographus tunnels are also known as galleries. They are left in bark and bast fibre, where bark beetle larvae hatch and munch their way out into the Great Wide Open. There are numerous kinds of bark beetles, all with a preference for different tree species and all leaving a variety of gallery patterns. The genus Ips is known as the engraver beetle, and though Ips typographus is not the only kind leaving particularly intricate galleries, it finds itself amongst the most sophisticated and recognisable.

Note: all images are credited to their respective artists, and where possible, sourced.

Can insects create art?”, the Florida Museum wonders in this online exhibit.

Photo of petrified wood with traces of bark beetle galleries on a 300 million years old scale tree trunk at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (US) by Jim Boone (source).

A gallery of galleries

With works by Suze Woolf, Stefania Rigoni, Ulrika Krynitz, Art Lab Gnesta, Jim Frazer, Stach Szumski, Alexandra Crouwers,

Suze Woolf

Suze Woolf works with printmaking, ceramics, watercolors and unique book objects, or rather, book sculptures. Inspired by eco-anxiety, she made a range of books objects using bark beetle tunneled wood integrating the patterns as its puzzling textual content.

Woolf sent me an email after she encountered The Compositor / Composing online. I already knew of her work before, since it’s almost the first to pop up when searching for bark beetle related art. The book objects in her body of work are stunning: not just concept-wise or aesthetically, but the technical execution is, at least to a relatively intangible artistic practitioner as myself, awe-inspiring.

The text below is taken from this website:

“Seattle-based artist Suze Woolf first noticed evidence of bark beetles while hiking in the Cascades. As most Scarabs know, scolytid bark beetle females lay their eggs along a gallery they excavate under tree bark, to which the larvae add when the eggs hatch. These squiggles caught Woolf’s eye when she saw them on fallen bark pieces. “They look very much like a strange script that we just can’t read,” she says.

The resemblance to written language inspired Woolf to create a series of 40 (and counting) unconventional books that incorporate bark beetle tracks in different ways. One, called Survivorship, was inspired by the chemical warfare that takes place between mountain pine beetles and the trees they choose as hosts. The cover is an actual slice of beetle-engraved log; the pages contain ink reproductions of beetle tracks overlaid on the genetic code for monoterpene synthase, one of the enzymes that trees use to generate defensive chemicals. Other books in Woolf’s series incorporate other bits of scientific data. “They teach me things I didn’t know,” Woolf says of her scienti­fic collaborators. “I get ideas I wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Below, a video about the project:

Visit The Bark Beetle Books vol. I – XL on Woolf’s website. Here’s a link to ‘What the Beetles Sang’ on Youtube: a video with audio based on Woolf’s ‘Bark Beetles Book Vol. 39’ by Aldo Daniel Rivera Rentería.

Suze Woolf, Bark Beetle Volume 38: Ponderosa branch, sticks, custom printed fabric, quilt batting, embroidery, grommets, screws, magnets. 12″ x 19″ long fully open, ~3.75″ diameter closed.

Stefania Rigoni

Rigoni graduated in 2022 from the Sandberg Institute’s ‘Studio for Immediate Spaces’ program in Amsterdam, with a project centered on Ips typographus, which I stumbled upon via an Instagram post. We connected, and recently she wrote to me that during her research, she moved into labyrinth territory, where she encountered the 1941 short story ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths‘ by Jorge Luis Borges – which coincidentally keeps returning in my own work. It seems we meet in this labirinthic garden, on the junction of the Sandberg Institute – me being a 2001 alumni – and eco-anxiety.

Stefania Rigoni (1994) is a spatial and visual practitioner. Her research interests usually fall into the material and immaterial traces left by the frictions and conflicts disrupting our time, it being the past, the present or the future. The formal outcomes vary constantly, and are tailored for the need of each project: from publications and visual researches to performances and installations.

Below, a text by Rigoni on her encounters with Ips (via this link).

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a picture that caught my attention. It’s a picture taken in the mid 20s of the last century, in a valley close to my hometown in the northeastern mountains of Italy. It shows a phase in the process of reforestation undertaken after the devastation left by WWI: a proud man stands, in a field covered by melting snow, in front of a haystack. All around him and up until the background, straight rows of tiny spruce plants have recently been planted.

Those trees could now be a thick and dense forest of spruce, but they could also be among the hundreds of thousands of plants fallen after the passage of Storm Vaia, at the end of 2018. In one night, an exceptionally strong wind wiped to the ground whole forests made particularly fragile precisely from the way in which they were planted many decades prior. The close proximity, in straight ordered lines, of the same species of trees, planted in the same moment, has proven a fatal choice. The event has been emotionally and economically shocking: entire landscapes have been drastically modified, bearing the loss of an immense amount of timber and the need for a (still nowadays) non-stop employment of labour and resources to restore the damaged areas.

The urgency of a constant effort to clean up comes from the need to contain the ultimate fragility that the monocultural forestation policy of the XXth century carries: parasites. The Ips Typographus is a beetle of 5 mm that attacks dying Spruces, but in extraordinary conditions it can attack also healthy plants. With the amount of specimens fallen four years ago, the Ips Typographus has thrived to the point of now being the primary danger to the stability of the ecosystem of my hometown’s forests. I started being fascinated (not in a positive or negative sort of judgment) by the clash of temporal, spatial and proportional scales suddenly collapsing onto one another and revealing themselves in the traces left by both the wind and the insects. Cary Wolfe and Maria Whiteman have also been stricken by a similar situation.

In an article called “Landscape and Inscription” they refer to the devastating effects of a parasite decimating the woods of Texas, and frame their interest with words that match my thoughts. “…the fallen pines of the Front Range are traces of something both there and not there, the graphic materialisation and registration of factors and forces at scales both above and beneath the domesticating world of the human who looks at nature and composes a landscape. For us, this asymmetry and asynchronicity of scales in both time and space are captured in the difference between the lowly mountain pine beetle, at a mere five millimetres long, and the vastness of the landscapes—entire mountain ranges, in fact—altered by its presence under quite ecologically and historically specific conditions.”

The factors and forces referred to in the article can also be called hyperobjects, those objects “…that “are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” and thus in a fundamental sense defy thought—certainly representational thought.” as argued in the same article by Wolfe and Whiteman, citing in this passage their colleague Timothy Morton. The traces left by hyperobjects are therefore one of the only ways that allow us to perceive the vastness and the impacts of their existence in our life as well as in the life of other species, revealing an underlying and inescapable interconnectedness of fates. However, what is inescapable is also the way in which as humans we perceive and react. Our bodies and the means we use to organise our lives can hardly be sublimated and overcome, and are the only tools we have to relate to others. I therefore started to look at what these relational tools are and what is their impact–for good or for bad.

I came back to look at the picture from the 20s. Grids and straight lines are among the most used spatial arrangements in the history of humankind. Used to separate space evenly, its employment allows also the representation of said space thanks to its scalability properties; that’s how maps are born. Fragmenting materiality in equal quantities allows for a better management of complexity, but it’s at times a dysfunctional way to relate to space and others. My project is a quest on the perception alterations we impose but also experience. Through the means of reproduction techniques of scales and grids I’m trying to link our understanding of the world in relation to the one of a much tinier individual, in the cosmos we both inhabit.

Stach Szumski

Szumski is a visual artist working in various media “through conceptual-interactive activities in which he critically examines the washed-out aesthetics of First World countries from folklore to purely intuitive, visual practices”. He’s a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts, Faculty of Media Art in Warsaw.

Installation View, Ips Typographus, Stach Szumski, Curated by Piotr Sikora At Berlinskej Model, Prague, Czech Republic
Installation View, Ips Typographus, Stach Szumski, Curated by Piotr Sikora At Berlinskej Model, Prague, Czech Republic

Text from oxfluxo.net:

The story you are about to read – or perhaps rather be swallowed by – is written on the walls of the gallery space. The intervention was conducted by Stachu in collaboration with legions of bugs as a part of a long-lasting psychedelic therapy session. The goal of this interspecies cooperation was to visualize the fears and anxieties that stay in the way of a friendly coexistence of humans and bugs. Even though it may now appear as a creepy bark beetle bone chapel, the future will acknowledge it as something like a cave painting from the turbulent dusk of the Holocene, when Gregor S. was just a literature protagonist and the human-bug era was about to take off.

For most of his life, Stachu has lived in the Giant Mountains (believe me or not, this is the English translation for Krkonoše). Even though he is much less present in his family home these days, in the long summer months he enjoys his escapades into the wild. Walking from Bogatynia to Broumov and back and exploring the territories of the mountains, artificially divided by the state border. The border is understood as a meeting point of what we consider nature or natural and culture or artificial remains a constant element in Stachu’s work. The ornament-like forms appear on wooden bones eaten by the bark beetle. The aeographic gradients emerging from the surface of an abandoned building as if graffiti was some kind of a lichen, slowly covering every inch of concrete. Thick branches in the shape of skeleton hands, reaching out for you as in some kind of twisted Disney cartoon. And all of the silhouettes resembling stalactites, rocky mushrooms, cranks in the sandstones, gargoyles, and hazy devil heads. All of a sudden you realize that the origin of this murky gothic style that dominates Stachu’s work is derived directly from the forest – the darker, more human resilient side of the Giant Mountains.

—  Berlinskej Model

Urnatur / Ulrika Krynitz

Urnatur is a design studio and ecological project in the Swedish area of Ödeshög. The Ips typographus inspired pattern ‘Gudrun: bark beetle larvae gnaws’ was designed by Ulrika Krynitz. Particularly noteworthy in this context is the fact that I actually know the area of Ödeshög quite well. It’s astonishingly near – only about 20 kilometres – the former home of artist and alchemist Lisa Jeannin, who made me an elixir as an aid when speaking about ecological grief.

From the webpage of the ‘Gudgrun’ cotton textile pattern:

…now or never…

After the heavy storms Gudrun and Per everybody who owned or worked with forest suddenly knew and recognized the deathly signs of the bark beetle larvae’s gnaws on the spruces inner bark. Sweden lost milliards of SEK. Everybody hated them. But for sure – don’t you agree they make a stylish and cool pattern?

Gudrun, by Ulrika Krynitz.

Art Lab Gnesta

Art Lab Gnesta is an artist run initiative in the Swedish town Gnesta, not far from Stockholm. In an almost impossible universal knot, this too, is a hometown to Lisa Jeannin whom I mentioned in the previous entry. The project ‘Granbarkborre­tapeten’ by the Art Lab was found through social media.

I’ve made some attempts to organise a residency at the Art Lab, but at the time, the pandemic restrictions made planning ahead near impossible. Still, on my part, a stay at the lab is very much on the table.

The press printing the pattern.

Below the text from the website of Art Lab Gnesta.

The spruce bark wallpaper

The art work Spruce Bark Borretapeten has been produced by young people from Sörmland under the direction of Art Lab Gnesta. The work consists of a wallpaper printed with glue paint on recycled paper that reflects the pattern of the spruce bark drill. During the summer it will be available for sale in the farm shop at Nynäs castle .

After the dry summers of recent years, the spruce bark beetle has been seen more and more often – both in the forest and in the climate debate. The small borer is one of the insects that do the most damage in the dense spruce forests, and the monoculture of modern forestry combined with a warmer and drier climate has led to large infestations.

Squid Squad is Art Lab Gnesta’s project for young people interested in art and the climate. Together we work to learn more about the global shifts we are in the middle of, by combining different kinds of knowledge. We have approached the spruce bark borer through field studies in the forest together with the Nature Conservation Association Daga-Gnesta, and then reflect the borer’s pattern by drawing together. Instead of conflicting with it, we wanted to find other ways to understand the message of the spruce bark beetle. The result is a wallpaper that wants to remind you of the human imprint on everything else that lives.

The wallpaper is printed at Lim & handprint on the “Rosenmaskinen” which was manufactured in the late 19th century. The specially developed glue colors come in shades that associate with bark and resin. The spruce’s response to the borers’ attack is to release quantities of resin in an attempt to drown the borers. However, it is often too late.

Just in time for the spruce bark beetle to wake up to start swarming, the wallpaper will be sold in a limited edition, in the farm shop at Nynäs castle. The surplus goes to the work of the Nature Conservation Society.

The presentation of the spruce bark tapestry at Nynäs is the first part of a longer collaboration between Art Lab Gnesta and Nynäs Castle, where artists are invited to produce new works of art based on the landscape, the nature reserve and the layers of history found at Nynäs.

Frederik Vium

‘2nd. Chapter. And bark beetles mapped hidden worlds’ was a curatorial project by artists Frederik Vium and Cristina Rüesch at Frappant art space in Hamburg. Frederik Vium (b. 1996) studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg and works in the intersection between performance, sculpture and video.

Text taken from the website of frappant.org:

Follow the lines under the crust a landscape, a letter, a warm invitation to a sphere where shape-shifters and ambivalent creatures, magical disorders, relationshipsproducing counselors meet and nest. They create new worlds, that at first glimpse might seem uncanny – Where every little thing is active and vibrant – Where borders are substituted by networks.

This exhibition is the second chapter of a continuous exchange between eight artists. It started with the package show 1th. Chapter – Trying to Be a Spider that was sent into the world in April 2021.

Instead of the spider, this time the bark beetle is our host and storyteller.
➴ Do you want to take a walk on this dusty path with us? ♡

Poster image for the exhibition by Frederik Vium, 2021
Poster image for the exhibition by Frederik Vium, 2021

Jim Frazer

Text taken from artistsfromutah.org:

Glyphs’ is derived from the paths of bark beetle larvae that Frazer found etched into tree trunks in the woods. He’s been translating the Glyphs, which have the appearance of calligraphic characters, from works on paper to sculptural versions having the same shape but made of wood and copper. “I’m excited about this because the larger sculptural versions have a greater presence. My intention is to create something recalling a ceremonial object, with the idea that if something is presented as having special significance, it will encourage people to look more closely at it.”

Jim Frazer. The sculptural iteration of “Glyph 35” shows the distinctive gallery structure of the bark beetle.
Jim Frazer. The sculptural iteration of “Glyph 35” shows the distinctive gallery structure of the bark beetle.
Follow Alexandra Crouwers:
Alexandra Crouwers (NL, °1974) is a visual artist working in the digital realm. Her works are made by using a combination of 3D modeling and animation, and post-production, and can take many forms. From 2019 on, she's a doctoral researcher in art and animation at Leuven University/LUCA School of arts, Brussels, under supervision of Wendy Morris.