Butterflies

The fascination with the butterfly is not a recent phenomenon in the modern art world. From Van Gogh to Dali the butterfly has presented itself as a timeless kindred spirit. With an enormous palette of colours to choose from, including their lightness and variety, the butterfly has often been used to symbolise many aspects of human nature. One of the more compelling representations in art history was an indication of man’s capability of transformation. However, in contemporary art history the butterfly has come to represent a ubiquitous theme in the art world, the duality of life and death. Bearing in mind that the variety of interpretation is as far reaching as the many species of butterflies found across the spectrum of countries, cultures, and artistic periods; the one distinct characteristic of the butterfly is its innate ability to balance non-linear associations of life and death - a formidable theme to be explored by artists today. 

Capturing the very essence of this contemporary theme, audiences were drawn into a white windowless room filled with hundreds of butterflies for an exhibition held at the Tate Modern, London. ‘In and Out of Love’ 2012, a retrospective exhibition, by the British artist, Damien Hirst was inspired by the ‘idea of a cycle of life being installed and allowed to express itself’. However, the exhibition stirred its audiences into a fluttering frenzy as it was revealed that 9000 butterflies perished during the 5 month run at the iconic contemporary art gallery. Debates as to whether Hirst’s controlled environment was ‘distressing and cruel’ or, on the contrary, a masterful example of the ‘poignant vulnerability of the butterfly’s short cycle’ caused a tremor through the art world. Irrespective of popular debate, the use of live butterflies generated excitement and contributed to the playful aspects of the installation, a theme also explored by artists today.

Contemporary artists have come to realise that the representation of life is just as impactful as rebirth and death. Dominic Harris has chosen the former with his interactive artwork Baby Flutter. They each signify ‘10 living portraits’ of different butterfly specimens and each exhibit their own characteristic and mannerism. Each butterfly is programmed to change from resting pose to flight mode as the viewer approaches the artwork in order to highlight the intricate details of its wings.

This is an important feature of the work as its interactivity with human contact demonstrates the playfulness and splendor of each flutter. Although individual interpretation is a given with most aspects of interactive artworks, by capturing a single motion of the butterfly, one might argue that the symbolism of life is limited to one single movement and the unpredictably, found in Hirst’s butterfly installation, is lost by the viewer becoming aware of the limits of each movement. However, although Baby Flutter offers a controlled environment to witness the exquisite movement of each butterfly, it reaches far beyond the LCD screen and offers the viewer a unique evolution in regard to the dialogue of design as well as the butterfly itself. Baby Flutter captures a continuous motion of flight, this is a significant factor to the pleasure one seeks when witnessing a butterfly in action. The fluid movement is made possible by an active user and highlights the beginning of a new cycle created between the user and the artwork. It is no longer a cycle of life and death, but a continuous cycle of being. A steady constant relationship between the artworks and the audience enables an interaction whereby the celebration of life, play and gracefulness precedes all other connotations.

The representation of the butterfly is a powerful emblem. It offers a variety of assimilations many of which contribute to a long-standing dialogue in popular culture, film, art and literature. Contemporary artists of different artistic mediums have taken hold of this historical precedence and upheld the many symbolic references, including creating new relationships and cycles. Dominic Harris has built upon these foundations by using the butterfly not only as an art piece, but also as a designed object. The viewer is in the direct gaze of the designer’s interpretation as well as the butterfly’s natural creative spirit, allowing new discourses between the audience, the designer/artist and these colourful insects to take shape.