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Of Art and Ant Hills

I’ve been watching a slew of videos like the one above of scientists and artisans pouring aluminum, lead, plaster, and wax into ant and termite nests creating intricate and fascinating positive casts out of them. These casts of natural insect nests are more captivating to me than most sculptures. They compel me to get close and study their form and complexity.

If you have ever done any heavy metal casting you will agree that these are technically seductive objects. They are instant-gratification, found-object sand molds just sitting there in the ground.

In other words, no artistic skill needed and almost no prep. These are readymade sculptural molds beneath your feet. Half the fun of these is that the caster doesn’t know what they are going to get until they dig it up. When the metal-filled nest is dug up, they discover these wondrously complex forms that would be tedious as hell to cast whole in a foundry.

Dr. Walter Tschinkel and an awesome aluminum cast of an ant colony
Dr. Walter Tschinkel and an awesome aluminum cast of an ant colony

Hopefully, the idea of hauling your hillbilly tech foundry gear out into the fields and pouring under appalling safety and fire hazard conditions gives you pause. If not, consider the fate of the insects that you sacrifice for your piece of instant nature art. Appreciate the wonder of nature as you marvel at your Shiny. Just remember you massacred an insect colony to get it. (In the case of a fire ant colony, that thought may elicit a warm glow of revenge.)

Dr. Walter Tschinkel says in the video above as he shows the reporter one of his ant hill casts,

“There’s actually more art in science than most people suspect.”

I see these objects not so much an intersection of science and art but as an intersection of science and art making.

I hesitate to call these casts art. Did the insects make this art work? If you answer, “Yes,” I disagree because if it is an art work it’s an unintentional by product of being an ant. This is a fossilized documentation of insect behavior. They are just being ants doing what ants do. They’re excavating to survive not make art. Plus, the ants didn’t give their consent to die a molten death in the name of this art work.

Maybe the human who pours hot metal into an insect nest to see what size and shape the nest is in order to study it is the artist? No. This person is doing it to learn about the creatures who made the complex collection of passages. This person is a valuable scientist adding to human understanding of the creatures we live with on this planet. Their casting of ant colonies is a great way to study and demonstrate how complex and sophisticated these creatures are.

How about the person who makes these casts because they love the way they look? They take their casts, flip them upside down and put them on display stands as art objects. Some of these they make available for purchase by Ebay or directly to museums and institutions. Are they artists? No. I consider this person more of a curio artisan or a craftsperson. (I’d clump them in with taxidermists.) But not an artist. It just so happens that this craft features an intriguing and hidden form of nature. These are superb items for science museum collections and educational curio cabinets. I don’t think they are capital A-art in the form I am seeing as shown to date. Plus, it seems wrong to display them upside down. The ants dig down. Display it that way.

Ant hill cast displayed upside down. Photo courtesy of anthillart.com
Ant hill cast displayed upside down. Photo courtesy of anthillart.com

I asked Dr. Tschinkel if he could give me a few more short lines on his thoughts on the relationship between art and science. Here he addresses my capital-A art quibble.

“Science and art both discover beauty, the beauty of form, the beauty of function. Although the rules of art and science are different, both can be intuitive and emotional, revealing as they do, the beauty and order of our world.  In addition, many scientists work with objects that are simply beautiful in the sense of art, and working with such beauty is emotionally rewarding.”

He’s right that the ant hill casts are emotionally rewarding. For me, there is an added intellectual stimulation and wonder that is also rewarding. But there was no human intent to evoke those feelings when the ants excavated their nests. I also think Dr. Tschinkel’s curiosity and drive for knowledge is the primary intent in making the casts. Any beauty he discovers is a fortunate byproduct.

Having said that, this doesn’t mean that as artists we can’t be inspired by the natural beauty in such an object. It also doesn’t mean we can’t feel covetous about the way the ants excavated these voids in the soil and want to somehow adapt their mad skills to our own ends. There is already sophisticated 3D printing for making a sand mold through an additive process. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take a CAD plan of a form and a block of resin sand or some other material and us a subtractive process with the aid of a swarm of autonomous RoboClam or antbots? They could excavate a large mold for a sculpture complete with gates, vents, and sprues. We might want that. It all depends on economics and which available technique will be able to best execute the discrete demands of that unique form.

This is certainly speculative, but Nick Gravish at MIT is working on the baby steps that might get us to the point of having excavating mini robot art minions some day. He’s studying ant behavior and capabilities–especially their tunneling–with an eye toward possible robotic applications.

Here is one of his videos:



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