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John Bonath, Cirque d’escargots

This work was influenced by classic era still life painting and by long-term explorations with studio fabrication.  Historic Vanitas painting was intended to remind us of our mortality via rich symbolic visual elements that were interpreted in allegorical ways.  It was quite curious to me in this “nature morte” genre when something was included that was not dead in nature.  The snail was such an element.  I imagine it was supposed to represent something that aids in the decay of living matter or even the slow, inevitable passage of time or the creeping nature of death or humility or perhaps just everyday life.  Snails were even symbolic of the Virgin Birth and the dogma of immaculate conception as they have the ability to change sex at will depending on which is needed for reproduction.  The meaning of many of these metaphors are often quite speculated and obscure.  The fascinating inclusion of snails moving slowly through a still life arrangement led to me to explore this as a theme in my own still life work.
I raised escargot snails for many generations over a period of years in order to have subjects readily available to photograph.  I like that people’s reactions to them vary greatly from endearing to extremely gross and even revolting.  One can empathize with the snail as it is human nature to withdraw into our own private shells when life is perceived as threatening.  Even such phrases as “coming out” elude to this metaphor.  They can be seen as cute idealized creatures in fairy tales and cartoons.  They are also perceived as slimy slugs devastating the environment.
In working with them, I got to know their individual markings and “personalities” and could get some of them to do things others would not.  For example, snails are repelled by oil.  In the image of the snail mounting the oil can, I was able to put a piece of wooden toothpick in the end of the oil spout to give my best performer something which it was willing to grab on to in order to make this idea possible.
In real time, when they slowly stretch out of their shells to search and explore their surroundings, it is like watching a Martha Graham dance performance.  They don’t have much sense of “vision” per se but can “sense” things with the dots at the end of their antenae-like body extensions.  I soon realized I could entice and direct them to stretch in certain ways and even to “look into the camera” by holding a piece of carrot in front of them.  As they came towards it, I would tease and lead them by holding it a little further away, and then, when I directed them where I wanted, I would take the picture.  Still life stages were fabricated for the snails to perform in, hence the series title “cirque”.
John Bonath