Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley
by Christopher Marley and Lynn Howlett
Review by Tessa Koumoundouros
I am mesmerised by the riches of colour that radiate from the pages of Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley. This book showcases some of nature’s most dazzling yet often overlooked, and even detested creatures: the insects. From the iridescent rainbow beetles, to the bizarrely shaped Giraffe Weevils, Marley presents a fresh view of the insect world and its intersection with his own aesthetic sensibilities.
Marley’s arrangements of preserved insect specimens both contrast and complement their colours, shapes and textures. This results in harmonious glimpses into nature’s vast and cacophonous range of insects. The photographs are organised into chapters that demonstrate key aesthetic principles, making Pheromone a lesson in design as well as insect diversity. For example, within his chapter exploring colour, Marley uses his insect compositions to demonstrate colour schemes, such as monochromatic and triadic.
Marley labelled each artwork with the insects’ common and scientific names, as well as their country of origin. For several of the artworks Marley includes notes about his reasoning behind the composition, tales of how he encountered the species or the difficulties involved in capturing them. Marley writes of his transformation from insect-phobic to insect obsessed, which inspired his switch from working in the fashion industry to focusing solely on insect art. He also explains how the international insect trade can be used to encourage conservation, by providing incentives for the local people to protect threatened habitats of valuable species.
Lynn Howlett photographed Marley’s insect arrangements, sometimes magnifying their tiny and intricate structural details, while displaying other specimens life sized. The photographs have been printed on thick, smooth, high quality matt paper, using special inks to capture the vibrant and often metallic hues. However, considering the size and quality of the prints, I am disappointed that in many of the photographs only the central body of the insect is in focus, leaving some of the most interesting structures, such as legs and antennae, difficult to discern.
While his arrangements are visually spectacular, I believe Marley may have missed an opportunity to further desensitise insect-phobic viewers by reducing the focus on their extremities. He implies that he tucks away the legs because people find them the most disturbing part of the insect, but then contradicts this by stating that displaying the entire animal “conveys both greater respect for the organism and a more intriguing draw for the viewer.” I agree with the latter. Exposing people who feel uncomfortable with insects, in a controlled environment, can help them acclimatise to and overcome their irrational fears. I also feel that de-emphasising fundamental parts of these creatures, such as their legs and antennae, further distances the specimens from the dynamic living animals that they once were, reducing them to superficial ornaments.
Marley occasionally attributes the staggering variety of insects to the workings of a higher power, rather than millions of generations of evolution. Insects undergo rapid evolutionary change compared to mammals, due to their short life spans and high reproductive rates. They have also existed on Earth for over 200 million years longer than mammals, and therefore have had ample time to greatly diversify. However, I can forgive Marley’s foray into personal beliefs, as his enthusiasm and admiration for insects is clear, and may inspire greater appreciation for these much maligned creatures.
I’m a science communication student, who loves science, writing and illustration. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Zoology and Genetics from The University of Melbourne, I have completed an editorial internship at The Conversation and have been a volunteer communications assistant for The Gould League.