The way of all butterflies

Canberra Times, July 12, 2015
Ian Warden - Columnist for the Canberra Times



Look closely: Johannes Stoetter's The Parrot. Photo: Johannes Stoetter

Bird lovers flock to this column (like geese to a wetland) knowing there are likely to be fine pictures of fine birds here.
But today's bird picture, apparently of a parrot not unlike our local Crimson Rosella (blended with a South American scarlet macaw), is not what it seems. Fans of kitsch seldom find much in this tasteful column, but perhaps there's something in this picture for you. Give it a good, long, forensic ogle. All is explained at the foot of today's column.*

There is nothing kitsch about today's other picture, Canberra sculptor Stephen Harrison's Butterfly Skull.

Harrison's highly original work has been much praised. Lots of you will know his alarmingly realistic World War II sea mine, which has bobbed about at various local venues. It gave south coast people the willies (and some of them even the heebie-jeebies) when it was installed on a beach as if it had washed up there. He has just spent five weeks in a very novel role. He and artist and illustrator Laura Arnull (who has been based at the Jerrabomberra Wetlands) have been, surely, the ACT's first artists-in-residence based at wildlife reserves.
The Wildlife and Botanical Artists (WABA) and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust combined to place Arnull at the Wetlands and Harrison at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. The idea has been, Harrison explains, that the artworks created and the displays and workshops that use them will enable the artists to be ambassadors for the delicate spots where they have worked. For example, some of Arnull's and Harrison's residency works, including Harrison's Butterfly Skull, are to go on display at this year's Floriade. There will be a marquee where the role of the two reserves will be explained and their praises, as important habitats and sanctuaries, enthusiastically sung.


Stephen Harrison's Butterfly Skull was the product of time spent working in a reserve. Photo: Stephen Harrison

The famous mine will be at Floriade too, bristling among the tulips, for this year's Floriade is to have wartime themes, to coincide with commemorations of the centenary of the Great War. We usually boycott the horticultural horror, the tulipy kitsch of Floriade, but thanks to these artists this year's sounds promising.
Harrison tells us that some of his Mulligans Flat works (in another very striking one a little bird is perched on a hand grenade) explore issues of wildlife's terrible vulnerability. Mulligans Flat, with its famous predator-proof fence, is specifically and literally a sanctuary for creatures such as the bettong and the bush stone-curlew, which struggle without protection. Cats and foxes stand at the fence, their noses up against the wire, fuming with exasperation.

"So I've taken as reference points the notions of enclosure, peril and surveillance," Harrison notes.

He finds that "there's a lot of death" in the bush and even in and around a sanctuary, and so he has posed a butterfly on a skull. No, he laughs, he didn't come across many human skulls among the bleached (animal) bones at Mulligans Flat but he has been dabbling a bit with vanitas themes. Vanitas works, especially associated with still-life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, harped on human vanity and reminded us that for all our earthly narcissism we will all go the way of all flesh. And so skulls are important artefacts in vanitas-themed works. Harrison has brought an echo of 16th century Flanders into a work about 21st century Gungahlin.

But why, we quizzed, an all-white butterfly? It is an odd thing to do (we nagged, pretending not to like it while secretly admiring it like anything) given that real butterflies are so brightly patterned.

It's because, he says, he's going through an all-white phase in which he's being reminded of pale marble. And, importantly, he wanted to present a sculpted, imagined, fanciful Mulligans Flat butterfly, totally unlike the photo-realistic portrayals of identified butterfly species a wildlife artist might do for a field guide.

*A bird-loving reader stumbled online across this artwork. What looks like a parrot is in fact a female model transformed by Austria's Johannes Stoetter, a fine-art body painter. Using "breathable" paint (thank goodness, after what happened to Bond girl Shirley Eaton in the 1964 Goldfinger, murdered by "epidermal suffocation" after her voluptuous nude body is painted in glittering gold), he spent hours painstakingly turning this woman into the image of a parrot. The model's arm forms the parrot's head and beak, and her legs form the wing and tail feathers.

Once you see her, the bird disappears, although one of the worries is that having seen this one may never look at a crimson rosella again (yes, we know this parrot woman has macaw qualities too) without seeing instead a painted woman.

Johannes Stoetter has give us kind permission to use the picture and so it is rude and ungrateful of us to say there is something kitsch about it.