Seabutterfly Effect:
Climate Change and Artistic Metamorphosis

In bracing subarctic waters, pteropods dwell amid the upper currents. Never touching the ocean floor, these tiny snail-like organisms long ago developed wing-like appendages, and so taxonomers labeled them pteropoda, or “wing foot.” Purportedly, eighteenth-century French fishermen were inspired by this feature as well as by the creature’s fragile, diaphanous body to call them “papillons de mer,” or sea butterflies. This poetic appellation became the popular catch-all name for a more scientifically problematic classification, along with the equally fanciful sea angels. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Captain Nemo possesses a cabinet of curiosities filled with natural works of art, and the last item in Jules Verne’s inventory is sea butterfly — a fitting position for such a miniscule creature. No larger than a grain of sand, they use their parapodia to propel themselves. Surfacing at twilight or evening, pteropods flutter as they feast upon plankton, becoming a nutrient-rich source for other aquatic species from slighty larger krill to giant whales. Likened to charming flying insects or to heavenly beings, pteropods grabbed hold of people’s imaginations and gained modest aesthetic recognition, despite — and maybe because of — their diminutive size. Yet unlike the often-depicted cephalopod Nautilus, they have scarcely been a subject for artists.

In the Pteropod Project, Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh grants the little known life form its day in the sun. Working with mass and space, Kavanagh conceives of strong organic shapes, enlivened by configurations and contours that discernibly change when seen from different viewpoints. Increasing the scale of the pteropods many times over, she extrapolates details and takes artistic liberties with their anatomy. Feeling her way through, the sculptor carves complex volumes with hollows and protrusions, which engender a counteracting movement of folding inward and thrusting out. Punctured by voids, her three-dimensional designs are fluid, with dynamic edges defined by water’s mutability. Rather than a sense of ethereal whimsy, these sculptures possess a kinetic energy, which is enhanced by light bouncing off each curve and undulation. By means of the surface luster, Kavanagh approximates the sense of translucency while wondrously achieving a commanding presence.

Kavanagh began her sculpting career by working in the tradition of Henry Moore and Constantin Brancusi. These sculptors created shapes that both emerged from the block of material and defied it: undulating ribbons of stone form graceful arcs, slices of marble shoot up into the air. Using the sense of touch in the give-and-take, these men worked the material in a way that intensified the tactile properties of their abstracted forms. These modernists found a vocabulary by distilling what they read in nature and the human body.  Playing with the principles that act upon all matter, they introduced a physical equivalent or essence — both familiar and other-worldly — into the viewer’s space.

Assimilating this approach, Kavanagh takes the minimal components of the pteropod and sets them in off-balanced arrangements, and this torsion away from the central axis lends a visceral feeling of motion in the viewer. In suspended animation, the figures could be protean spirits of the deep, winged messengers from the ocean world.

More than projection, however, the pteropod sculptures emerge from an even more empathic approach to sculpture, as Kavanagh situates her work within the “affective domain.” Viewing the 2004 tsunami and its swift, indifferent devastation, she had a personal epiphany.  She had been drawn to water all her life; but even though she felt lost when not near the ocean, she was also deeply afraid of it. Perhaps some childhood experiences were the explanation, but as an adult she experienced this attraction/repulsion as a primordial fear: the planet’s water was both the source of life and its destroyer.

Her first response to this awakening sensitivity was the Tsunami Project, in which the sculptures were expressive of both the beauty and the force of the surging waves. This led to the series Arctic Ice Melt: moulins of my mind, which turned her attention to the human contribution to global warming. At this stage, Kavanagh also began to view her art-making as a more collaborative endeavor, seeking the best information from top researchers in the scientific community. As a result, her sculptures became less self-contained entities and more emotive displays.

Researching the melting of the polar ice caps, Kavanagh became interested in the impact on ecosystems where glaciers meet the sea and, in particular, the microorganisms indigenous to these remote regions. For her next body of work, she hunted for a species that would both represent the plight of such creatures and speak to her artistically. Many of them, such as diatoms, had a bilateral symmetry, which “locked up” for her visually. Others were too exquisite and not amenable to distortion. Then after a year, she came upon a photograph of a gliding pteropod with its flapping wings and immediately felt its appeal. Out of the many varieties, Kavanagh selected Limacina Helicinia and Limacina Retroversa, whose thin shells have a particular story to tell, as well as Clione Limacina, who is shell-less and preys uponthe others.

Causing global warming, the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is simultaneously making the oceans more acidic. So seawater is becoming increasingly corrosive to aragonite, the calcium carbonate make-up of pteropod shells. In “following the order of my heart to my hand,” Kavanagh portrays the integrity of constituent elements as well as their dissolving and separation, so that her imagined states of the pteropods bears witness to their demise. In the last decade, she also refined a new way of working in which foam replaced stone as her medium. Experimenting with a piece of flotation foam that she found, Kavanagh was delighted by the quickening of her process. Sourcing “buoyancy billets” at the local lumber yard, she adapted her sculptor’s toolkit, with the most significant change being the use of a reciprocating saw instead of an air hammer. Covered with plaster then smoothed, the form could be turned into a mold for metal casting or finished with a hard plastic coating and pearlescent metallic auto paints.

In the Pteropod Project, Kavanagh achieves intricate compositions of positive and negative space in three dimensions — rippling curvilinear patterns and pockets of shimmering light. Sculpted cavities allow light to enter, and reflections both define and embellish with painterly tonalities. The weight of the materials encourages the dramatic centripetal sweeps of a Bernini as well as the convex-concave rhythms of a Borromini. Certainly such Baroque gestures are possible in marble, but the lively tempo of carving and foam’s flexibility released this stylistic impulse in Kavanagh.

How inopportune that pteropods may disappear only a short time after becoming visible — after we became interested in microscopic organisms in unknown territories. During the seventeenth century, lens technology was brought to a point that made innovations in the microscope and telescope possible, and these, in turn, became twin tools for a scientific revolution and for an age of exploration. Through the ages, people had looked to the ocean and its horizon, and they had envisioned water deities as well as strange lands and creatures beyond; but if they ventured forth, the goal was getting to dry ground and not investigating what lay below.

Yet the sea voyages of the eighteenth century fed the Romantic imagination, mostly notably the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) may have been based on tales told in school by a teacher William Wales, the astronomer for Captain Cook’s second voyage, which included the first European ships to cross the Antarctic Circle. Seemingly doomed by shooting an albatross, the ice-bound narrator at first is repulsed by the sight of “slimy things”; but upon his second sighting, he discerns their color, shape, and movement. Finding love in his heart and a nascent compassion, he cries “O happy living things!” and is redeemed. This lyrical outpouring also marks the beginning of an ebullient era of inquisitiveness about the natural world in its magnitude and multiplicity, including the imperceptible.

In the years between Coleridge’s mariner and Verne’s Nemo, trans-Atlantic travel and telegraphy as well as the whaling industry brought the ocean into the sphere of regular human activity. Considered the foundation of modern oceanography, the Challenger Expedition in the 1870s met the increasing need for a systematic survey and analysis. In addition to sounding depths, the team collected 4700 new species of plants and animals, including pteropods. Just a little over a century ago, the chief scientist Charles Wyville Thompson wrote of some finds as “strange and beautiful things…which seemed to give us a glimpse of the edge of some unfamiliar world.” The naturalist described the perceived art of nature in the same terms as Walter Pater had characterized Leonardo da Vinci in an 1869 essay — virtually a handbook for Aestheticism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau. In the most famous passage, Pater even refers to the Mona Lisa as “a diver in deep seas.”

However, it took an obsessive scientist with an artistic flair to create corresponding imagery that seeped into public consciousness. Widespread interest in the expedition was served by volumes written by zoologist and morphologist Ernst Haeckel, who in the 1860s had published his self-illustrated work on marine protozoans. More popular than Darwin as a disseminator of evolutionary theory, he produced flamboyant color lithographs of microorganisms, which had a profound influence on turn-of-the-century visual culture. In his best-seller Art Forms in Nature (1899-1904), Haeckel adjusted anatomy of organisms to suit his concepts, drawing upon neo-Gothic patterns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Demonstrating his search for nature’s organizing principle, his pages crammed with highly wrought sea creatures enthralled Art Nouveau and Jugendstil designers, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Hermann Obrist, Émile Gallé, Hector Guimard, and René Binet.

Amid the Challenger enthusiasm, young Sigmund Freud even contemplated a career as an oceanographer, receiving a research grant in 1876 to work at the Laboratory for Marine Zoology in Trieste. Even though people find meaning in his dissection of eels in search of their sex organs, not much has been mentioned about oceanography as a source for the primary metaphor of depth psychology.

Whether delving into the human psyche, the building blocks of structures and organisms or seeking a metaphysical reality, the notion of looking below the surface or behind appearances became the central pursuit of twentieth-century art. Pouncing on Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, the Surrealists let loose with organic motifs reminiscent of microscopic life forms, knowledge of which had become more readily and directly available through advances in photomicroscopy. Embraced by artists like Hans Arp, Jean Miro, Yves Tanguy, Arshile Gorky, Henry Moore, and others, this formal strategy was considered a means of dredging up the subconscious. More streamline than its fin-de-siècle progenitor, biomorphic shapes are liminal and unstable, having fluid boundaries with potential for both playfulness and unease. In the mid 30s, Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, labeled biomorphism and deemed it the emotional counterpart to reason, in advance of the early work of the Abstract Expressionists and other late-century abstract modernists.

For Wassily Kandinsky, modern science and its instruments allowed us to tap into and connect to a life force, thus initiating the dawn of a spiritual age. While at the Bauhaus, the artist published Point and Line to Plane (1926) in which he articulated his vision: “Only by a process of microscopic analysis will the science of art lead to an all-embracing synthesis, which will ultimately extend far beyond the boundaries of art, into the realm of ‘union’ of the ‘human’ and the ‘divine.’” Amassing a collection of photographs of micro-organisms, the optimistic theosophist believed that study of natural and scientific phenomena afforded a view into “the hidden soul of all things.” In this penetration beyond the external, “the unaided eye or through the microscope or binoculars” became the “internal eye” by which all the senses could feel the “pulse” (from the Danish periodical Konkretion, 1935). His biomorphic forms represent that which was previously unseen — the numinous — so that the artist becomes a kind of mystic who lifts up the veil.

Kavanagh’s pteropods are ancient and elemental forms whose ocean existence is a reminder of our own watery origins and our primal consciousness. In reaching out to a place of mystery, the artist also turns inward to her subconscious reserve and creative wellspring, in which the ocean symbolizes the Great Mother. Relying on intuition, she interprets and invents these tiny beings as a kind of dharmic act — releasing into understanding and sympathy. While partaking of the heritage of Surrealism and Kandinsky, her biomorphic forms incorporate pathos in a way that reflects changes in our awareness. What once seemed limitless and eternal now is dwindling.

No longer “self-sufficient entities,” like other natural forms pteropods are seen in light of what the scientist C. H. Waddington referred to as “natural relatedness, organizations, and the essential importance of systems relations” (Behind Appearance, 1969). Their extinction would be the first ripple in what could be called a sea butterfly effect: Within their complex eco-systems, the pteropod’s position at the bottom of the food chain would bring down the populations of all marine life. The very contrast between their infinitesimal size and the enormity of the cataclysm suggests a sublime tragedy, and Kavanagh’s series of the pteropod’s dissolution — “a majestic struggle to survive” — can be placed alongside depictions of heroic deaths and Baroque martyrdoms. Reaching back into history, she elevates the microscopic pteropod through her fluency with the world’s sculptural traditions. Yet it is her sensitivity to the world around us that makes these sculptures so poignant, for they were imagined and carved by a woman who knows the sounds of the changing tides. Creating shapes that resonate within our collective memory, Kavanagh urges us to take notice and to take action. It is her offering as an artist.

Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh. The Pteropod Project. charismatic microfauna