anne ten donkelaar

March 19, 2012

The upcoming solstice, plus several days of 70° plus temperatures, means that it’s officially spring week here on designkool! Kicking us off are the stunning works of Anne ten Donkelaar.

Two of Donkelaar’s most ephemeral series: Broken Butterflies and Flower Constructions, celebrate spring’s most symbolic harbingers. In these works the Dutch artist utilizes a combination of natural and man-made materials to create these exquisitely delicate assemblages.

For her Broken Butterflies, Donkelaar procured insects that had died a natural death in a local butterfly observatory. Often these beauties were damaged, so in her work Donkelaar set about “restoring” their missing parts with pins and thread, embroidery, roots, or other elements. For her flower constructions, Donkelaar again combined bits of real and man-made – pressed flowers, stems, and printed illustrations – to create her floral collages.

In both series, Donkelaar seems to be commenting on the parallel roles of human and Mother Nature as Creator, and how artists and scientists in particular endeavor to capture the beauty and complexity of Natures’ designs. It is no accident that these works resemble the pinned specimens of the naturalist or botanist. (To me the flowers in particular resemble the Blascha glass flower models at Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History.) Nor is it a coincidence that Anne’s constructions have a distinctly Frankensteinian aspect to them.

Indeed the theme of rebirth is quite strong in Donkelaar’s work. Like the awakening of spring itself, dead flowers and damaged butterflies are renewed. But even as Donkelaar plays at creator, she does not try to hide the human hand. Indeed she celebrates it with overt, machinist attachments to her butterflies or by deliberately maintaining the two dimensionality of her bouquets. It’s as if Donkelaar is quite aware that in all our attempts to dissect and understand and mimic Nature’s beauty, humanity’s efforts will never have quite the same life.

At first glance Anne ten Donkelaar’s collages seem deceivingly demur. But to me it is not just the beauty, but the tension of Donkelaar’s pieces that makes them so evocative and compelling. In Donkelaar’s fragile work, we are aware of how frail life can be. And no matter how much we study her with our sciences or revere Nature with our art, we cannot cheat death. It is the play of life and death, of nature and machine, of the beautiful and the monstrous that lends great power to Donkelaar’s work.

For an interview with the artist, see My Modern Met.

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