July 2016: Rachel Yurkovich

In Blog, Photography, Reviews By by Ken Aschliman On August 10, 2016

Rachel Yurkovich, Installation view


Rachel Yurkovich constructs an exhibition that is reminiscent of a laboratory filled with peculiar experiments. Although visually the work has a clean, scientific aesthetic, the acrid smell of vinegar and dirt immediately confronts the viewer, while the soft, tense sounds pierce the gallery with a subtle sense of horror. Yurkovich derives her artwork from biological experiments that satiate our curiosity by highlighting truly bizarre animal behavior. A dying/brown apple tree and preying mantis terrarium are the centerpiece of the show and are surrounded by numerous video monitors and preserved bug specimens in the gallery. The living specimens are part of her ongoing experimentation during their stay in the gallery.


In Self-Indulgence, Yurkovich tests the effects of watering an apple tree with apple juice. The spindly apple tree appears feeble and sad with its brown, withered leaves and frail trunk. At the beginning of the exhibition the tree had three remaining green leaves but they quickly browned, serving as a harsh juxtaposition to the lush trees that line the street just outside the gallery window. The tree is fed four bottles of Great Value apple juice on a weekly basis, and as the bottles are emptied into the tree’s base, they are placed back into an array on the floor to demonstrate the experiment’s progress. Mixed odors of the apple juice, the soil, and what can be perceived as the decay of the tree create strong acidic smell that is instantly off-putting. It seems as if the tree is drowning within its own products as the soil begins to oversaturate, and we are witness to its tragic and fetid decay. Self-Indulgence highlights the limits of consumption. Excess in this case inevitably leads to decay. As the tree is undergoing an unnatural process in the artificial gallery space, we cannot help feeling empathy for it.


Rachel Yurkovich, still from Egg Eating Chicken


In the video Egg Eating Chicken features a test subject who is an active agent in its gluttony. A hen furiously pecks at her own egg until she cracks open the shell and carries it further back into her nest to eat the oozing white and yolk. The experiment is filmed like a dark horror, the gruesomely violent and frantic pecking of the chicken on its own egg seems like a crazed infanticide. Yurkovich explores this strange relationship with the consumption of its own bodily product, as hens do occasionally consume their own unfertilized eggs. The chicken is not deliberately engaging in cannibalism; the act is more of a selfish indulgence. The yolk of the egg is meant as a nutrient for the embryonic chick, and this hen consuming her own byproduct is odd, like a woman drinking her own breast milk. The taste of the yolk has become addictive to the hen, which will continue to voraciously eat her own eggs. On farms this behavior condemns hens to be slaughtered because they no longer produce eggs. The chicken’s vicious and relentless pecking represents an alarming loss of self-control, and the furious delight of consumption that blinds of impending consequences.


In Yurkovich’s mantis works she tests the insects cannibalistic behavior which is not only self-willed but an intrinsic characteristic of their species. Yurkovich began this series of experiments by playing matchmaker for two mantises in order to breed further generations.. With incredible clarity and detail, much to our horror, she captures the mating dance of the mantises and the eventual consumption of the male mantis by the hungry and unfeeling female. The video is shot with a degree of intimacy, as if the close shots upon the the face of the feasting mantis were actually trained upon the face of a human instead. The insects spare us no gore or horror. This feeling is amplified by the incredibly anthropomorphic quality of the mantises with their long torsos and upright posture. To the female mantis, this act ensures that she has the proper food supply to successfully produce her eggs. If there is an abundant food supply in their environment, a majority of the time mating the females will not consume their male partners. Female mantises are not intrinsically cannibalistic, but rather opportunistically cannibalistic. In the case of Yurkovich’s mantises, the indulgent nuptial gift is determined by the environment and appetite of the female.


Rachel Yurkovich, The Second Generation detail


The First Generation and The Second Generation tell a family drama ripe with accidental death, cannibalism, and incest. Yurkovich preserves the dead mantises from previous experiments, complete with pins and scientific labelling for their identification. Through close inspection of the labels, the tragic fate of these insects is laid out for us. The world of the mantis is brimming with danger. Of ten males, only one was consumed by a female mantis; the others have died naturally, only to be partially consumed by crickets, their intended food. However, the mantises are not preoccupied with traditional family values. Their primary concern is to eat and reproduce, with the ultimate goal beings the continuation of its species.


Rachel Yurkovich, still from Boiling Frog Syndrome


Yurkovich puts animal instinct to the test again in the video Boiling Frog Syndrome. Her experiment explores the veracity of the adage, “If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out right away, but if you slowly heat the water in the pot by small degrees it will not notice and will be boiled to death.” Historically, several experiments like Yurkovich’s have tested this saying with negative results (the earliest being in 1869 by German physiologist Friedrich Goltz). Yurkovich stages her experiment in a clean environment with cool light. She places a white tree frog in a metal sauce pan on a lab stovetop and raises the temperature in controlled increments of five degrees Celsius every ten minutes. The video teems with suspense. The temperature climbs slowly, creeping closer and closer to 100 degrees, yet the frog does not yet attempt to escape. Yurkovich captures the frog in intimate close-ups. We expect the frog to wince in pain or to see fear flicker in its eyes, but for the most part it is unflinching. Even once the frog decides that the water is too hot, it only leaps up onto the metal lip of the saucepan. After three hours and fifty minutes, the frog ends the experiment by jumping from the lip, but only once the water passes the boiling point. Though the frog is not actively consuming anything, the experiment is staged to test the frogs will to survive. In an eat or be eaten world, if the frog were to be boiled alive in the pot it would be complicit in it’s own consumption.


Yurkovich’s experiments highlight natural behaviors that we initially perceive as bizarre and destructive like self-cannibalism and sexual cannibalism. Yet, our perception is tinged by our human experiences. Her experiments draw out feelings of revulsion, but also pity. We tend to project our values and concerns upon animal behaviors as if they were our own. The excessive consumption we witness in Yurkovich’s experiments bring to mind human overconsumption and self-destructive behaviors  like eating disorders, drug addiction, alcoholism. At times it is easier to feel empathy for a frog or an insect, a creature so different from ourselves, than to confront issues that plague our own species.


By Harlee Mollenkopf