By Madelaine Jerousek-Smith, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine

I want people to have a kind of moment of heightened senses..., the way you feel when you walk outside on a pitch-black night and all of the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.”
—Julia Oldham
MFA’05

Julia Oldham was talking about her love of bugs this past summer—of observing them, of researching their rituals, and of mimicking their movements in her video art—when a wasp descended into her line of sight.

Oldham, MFA’05, yelps and swats. She scans the cabin on her family’s Iowa forest preserve for a flyswatter. “I love insects,” the artist says, “but I have this totally irrational fear of wasps.”

Stings of all types are a hazard in Oldham’s job. For her most recent work, a video series called The Timber, she spent weeks in a forest preserve observing larvae, beetles, and spiders, thinking about how her art could bridge the worlds of insect dances and human communication. The result is a work that combines art and ethology, earning Oldham acclaim and an unusual niche as an artist of underbrush and arboretums.

The video series captures Oldham barefoot in the woods, dressed in plain clothing, flitting her arms like a firefly or wriggling like a grub. Her movements, cut and sped up during editing, are punctuated with glugs, chirps, and other sounds from nature, which come from a variety of sources.

“I record some of it myself out in the field,” Oldham says. “I record sounds at home using funny little instruments or tapping on the table and then speeding that up. Making sounds with my mouth.” She also mines the Internet.

Oldham first began experimenting with video at the University of Chicago, where she held solo and group exhibitions at the Franke Institute and Midway Studios, as well as the Little Black Pearl in Hyde Park. She has since produced four video series, at once bizarre and whimsical, in which Oldham attempts to enter the mind of her muses.

Her work has piqued the art world’s interest, garnering her a solo show last summer in New York City’s Art in General gallery and showings in Lisbon, Portugal’s Espaço3 gallery, and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In October she began an artist residency at Adirondack Park in New York, and this spring she heads to Kentucky’s Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

Invertebrates Become Her Muses

Oldham’s fascination with invertebrates began as a child. Growing up in rural Maryland, she spent her days wandering the woods near her family’s home, overturning rocks and searching a creek for frogs.

When her father, a physicist, returned from work each evening, he told her stories that animated nature. She once asked her father what would happen when she died and recalls him saying, “Well, worms will eat out your eye. Mushrooms will grow out of your toes, and coyotes and vultures will gnaw on you.”

Oldham found comfort in the knowledge that her favorite animals would someday nibble her flesh.

She loved to draw and briefly considered a career in scientific illustration. But after taking courses at St. Mary’s College in Maryland in which she painstakingly stippled dead insects, she desired a deeper connection to the natural world. Painting became her passion; science her hobby.

The natural world is “so mysterious,” she says. “There’s a system of unbelievable things happening out there that I could never fully wrap my head around.”

In one of her earliest pieces, she taped herself blowing bubbles into a tank that contained an aquatic plant to engage in “a sort of symbiotic relationship.” The project was silly, she admits now, but it led her “into this world of invertebrates as muses.”

Pushing the Body to Its Limits

At the end of graduate school, Oldham studied honeybees and their waggle dance, which they use to communicate the direction of food to their hive mates. She turned her fascination into performance videos, building an elaborate yellow and orange set in her studio. Next Oldham, who took childhood dance classes and “was terrible,” performed insect-mating dances in front of the camera.

For The Timber, named for her family’s 700-acre forest preserve in Marshalltown, Iowa, where gnats swarm, crickets chirp, and spiders glide across the ground, the Brooklyn-based artist spent two weeks in 2008 living in a cabin overlooking the Iowa River. Each day she ventured out with her sketchbook to study insect larvae around creeks, track grasshoppers in the prairie, and poke at ground beetles helping a log to rot in the dense forest.

Then she turned on her video camera and intuitively performed a hybrid of bug actions on the forest floor. Each video, an homage to a different bug, is shot in a single take. During editing she adjusts the color and speed, she says, to “push the movements to an unexpected, almost alarming place.”

Oldham’s upcoming residencies will put her in contact with entomologists and other scientists, and she looks forward to tapping into their knowledge. Future works might dig deeper into forest-floor decomposition, inspired in part by a worm-composting bin she started in her apartment last summer. She’s also been reading about fungus.

Although Oldham focuses on the environment, her videos aren’t intended to be didactic. Rather, “I want people to have a kind of moment of heightened senses when they view the work, the way you feel when you walk outside on a pitch-black night and all of the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” she says. “I want it to be that kind of sensual experience.”

Originally published on January 25, 2010.