I spent my time observing, filming and thinking about Butterfly Chrysalis in relation to transformation, emergence and becoming. The Chrysalis hangs at a dissolving threshold between the fluid and the crystal, a living soup of metabolism, metamorphosis and mutualism. The chrysalis demonstrates a symbiotic system of care and reciprocity with plants and signifies hope of emergence and healing. These words by Rebecca Solnit about hope and change have further anchored my thinking on the chrysalis:
‘There’s another analogy that comes to mind. When a caterpillar enters its chrysalis, it dissolves itself, quite literally, into liquid. In this state, what was a caterpillar and will be a butterfly is neither one nor the other, it’s a sort of living soup. Within this living soup are the imaginal cells that will catalyse its transformation into winged maturity. May the best among us, the most visionary, the most inclusive, be the imaginal cells – for now we are in the soup. The outcome of disasters is not foreordained. It’s a conflict, one that takes place while things that were frozen, solid and locked up have become open and fluid – full of both the best and worst possibilities. We are both becalmed and in a state of profound change.’
Image description: a Magellan Birdwing Chrysalis hangs by two dark threads from a thin branch. The chrysalis resembles a dried dead leaf, the colour is a sandy yellow / brown colour with thin dark brown lines like leaf veins. The background is soft focus with dark green leaves.
This is Uncle Niu’s garden; he grows and cares for an abundance of host plants for diverse butterfly species. Some butterflies live out their entire lives in the garden and others pass through on a much longer journey. He lives on the outskirts of New Taipei City where he welcomes visitors to spend time in his garden and learn about the butterfly of Taiwan. The dirt path to his house is just off a busy main road, the sounds of traffic drain away as butterflies increasingly fly through the air. I visited his garden several times to observe the changes in the chrysalis as winter turns to spring. This year he noticed that there is fewer chrysalis on the trees. He created this protective cocoon from a plastic bag for this feeding caterpillar, in the hope that they will make their journey into becoming a butterfly.
The carrier bag becomes a vessel for a cocoon biosphere that hangs from a branch in a way that reminds me of a chrysalis. I couldn’t help but think of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ that redefined technology as a cultural carrier, a vessel, rather than a weapon of domination and Donna Haraway’s ‘The Camille Stories’ that imagined humans as participants in symbiotic relationships. The butterflies live in symbiosis with their host plants, they lay their eggs and feed on the plants whilst pollinating the plants in the processes, a mutually beneficial relationship for both participants. I observed how it seems with increasing loss of butterfly habitat, extreme weather conditions, pollution and industrialised agriculture that there is a role for human acts like this, to look closely and offer gestures of care to enable the continued survival and flourishing of butterflies, plants and people. For example, to grow gardens that attract and feed pollinators such as butterflies and bees.
Image description: a clear plastic bag hangs in the foreground from a branch; the background is a soft focus of green leaves. Inside the bag are green leaves and twigs, which are the same kind as those from the surrounding trees, inside a feeding caterpillar is just about visible. The bag sways in the wind, and moisture is starting to collect on the inside of the bag.
Phases of Matter: glass recycling
Extending my interests in phases of matter within Chrysalis forms, I was interested in learning more about glass recycling and the intersection of these cyclical processes as sites of material transformation and becoming.
70% of glass used in Taiwan gets recycled and reused in various forms from vessels, building materials, roads and arts and craft objects, creating a circular economy and material rebirth. I visited one of Taiwan’s largest glass recycling factories in Hsinchu, where they covered the whole process, from collecting and breaking down glass bottles all the way to reheating the molten glass in the furnace to make glass blown vessels again.
Image description: a heap of broken glass fragments forms a pyramid. The pile of glass continues to grow as a rusty machine above feeds more shards of broken glass into the pile. On mass, the mountain of glass has a light aqua green hue.
This Butterfly Garden in Kaohsiung houses an abundance of butterflies in a large outdoor garden. As all the host plants for the butterfly are growing and maintained, this was an excellent place to observe butterflies up close as well as find many cocoons and chrysalis forms. These forms have been the inspiration for my recent glass sculptures. I often hang these from meat hooks. This was kind of uncanny to then see these same forms repeated back at me and hooked up with a miniature version of the same kind of armature I use.
Image Description: white/cream silk moth or butterfly cocoons hang from tiny rusted meat hooks suspended from a mesh insect screen. The background is soft-focus dappled green leaves.
Mangroves: where the land meets the sea
One of the first research trips I took was to visit the Tamsui District, tracing the river upstream, at the edges of Taipei, towards the sea. During low tide, we looked for river glass, flecked between stones (and trash) on the riverbanks. Collecting small fragments of broken glass, once sharp shiny shards eroded smooth and matt by the ebb and flow of the tides.
As we neared the city limits, sounds of the passing traffic come and go like the tides. Mangroves replace infrastructure and we reached a mangrove reserve, an area designated to allow the mangroves to return and flourish along the river banks, lush and green with slender exposed roots and waxy leaves, mangroves provide a natural flood barrier, they inhabit the threshold between the land and the water. The mangroves provide a marginal ecosystem between saltwater and freshwater, living along shores, rivers, and estuaries in the tropics and subtropics, in water up to 100 times saltier than most other plants can tolerate. They thrive despite twice-daily flooding by ocean tides.
Image Description: Young mangrove trees grow sparsely out of the muddy tidal bed. It is low tide and the river has gone out towards the sea mouth, the sky is overcast and there are buildings and pylons in the distance.
Hoping to observe the end of ‘The Purple Flight’ – when Purple Crow Butterflies gather every winter to rest in the warm mountain valleys. By February/March the butterflies become more active before they individually migrate back to Northern Taiwan to breed. This happens every year in Taiwan, and along with the Monarch Butterfly in Mexico (they are part of the same Milkweed Butterfly family) are perhaps the only butterflies on earth known to undertake this long migration and mass resting.
By chance, I came across ‘The Purple Crow Conservation Society’ working in Maolin, volunteers who are tracking the butterflies to understand more about their lifespans and subtle migration patterns. I observed how intimate they were with the butterflies, gently handling their delicate wings to mark the date and location without harming their scales, drawing my attention to the intricacies of the butterfly wing patterns, differences between males and females through their wings markings and scent. Not all the butterflies are marked, but by doing this to a portion, they can better understand their age and how accelerating forces of climate change and industrialisation will affect their migration routes. So much is still unknown about the amazing endurance and intergenerational knowledge of these tiny fragile yet resilient creatures.
Image description: An open palm of a human hand holds a resting Purple Crow Butterfly. This hand is held by another person’s hand. In the overcast light, the butterfly’s wings are a chocolate brown colour with small lilac specs, 319 is written in black ink on the butterfly’s wing.
As part of our UK-Taiwan exchange, artist Steph Huang will work with Arts Catalyst in Sheffield to undertake research on sustainable prawn farming in the UK. Click here to read about the artist and the programme.
This residency is a collaboration between Platform Asia, Taipei Artist Village and Arts Catalyst.
Supported by Arts Council England and the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs.