Artist Jeff Whetstone’s 2010 work, Melanoplus Swarm, installed as a monumental wall mural in the exhibition Area 919, makes our skin crawl. And it should! This is a photograph of a real grasshopper swarm in rural Nebraska.
“Yeah, they’re just kind of all over the place,” Whetstone told us. “These are tiny, they’re the species that’s closest to the great Rocky Mountain Locust, which were the largest aggregation of land animals ever recorded in history. But paleontologists think they were the largest conglomeration of land animals to have ever been on the planet because there’s layers in glaciers that are just grasshoppers. And that was biblical, right? It’s part of our manifest destiny; as the Mormons went west, the grasshoppers emerged. It’s kind of this epic story of religion and nature and culture, all combining. But they’re tiny little grasshoppers so they’re almost kind of something you wave out of your face like gnats.”
We asked Jeff to elaborate on the many layers of meaning in this work.
“So the great swarms of grasshoppers, and this one, too, to a certain extent─they’re not the big locusts that you see in the movies, you know,” he said. … “They’re tiny. Tiny little things. Just very, very little. When they breed and they lay 100 eggs, you know, 100 of these little things would go unnoticed. But when they become 300 or 400 or 500 per square meter and you look across the vast fields of Nebraska, how many square meters there are, the numbers become to the level where you can’t conceive of the amount. I did a bunch of measurements of how many grasshoppers were per square meter because I’m a kind of sciencey guy like that, but once you plug that into the calculator you get a number times 10 to the 6th and 7th and 8th and 9th. They estimate in 1857, between 100 and 120 trillion animals. So that’s the size of the state of Tennessee. A mile thick! So it’s gigantic.”
Is the work a big metaphor?
“Well, I think one thing that I want to do in all of my work is to remind myself and make sure that other people know that the power of natural forces and the power of really long time measurements is something that we don’t necessarily calculate a lot,” Jeff told us. “Our eye for natural history might be even seasonal, and so not that this picture necessarily does that but there is an immense power of nature and I don’t know if it’s benevolent or destructive. It’s certainly intimidating and awesome that I love to be reminded of. I mean, I think we are kind of that power too, you know. Seven billion people on the planet. Yeah. We can do some things. … I think one thing about the picture is that inclusion of that telephone pole, you know, that symbol of a singularity. And then this kind of galaxy or constellation of bugs. So you kind of see a comparison between maybe a cultural singularity and then this natural exponential explosion of life.”
Find out more about this work in the accompanying video. Portrait of Jeff Whetstone by J Caldwell.