Making art is a bug’s life

French artist Hubert Duprat is fascinated by nature. His first ever UK solo show features his sculptures and installations made from precious materials including ivory, gold and flint, alongside the artist's work with the humble caddis fly. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Close up, out of context, they look like highly decorative pieces of jewellery. Except these sparkling pieces of gold, pearl and gem stones aren't the work of a jeweller, rather they have been produced by a particularly industrious insect who will draw on whatever it finds to create a cocoon.

Caddis fly larvae are known to incorporate bits of whatever they can find into their cocoons, be it fish bone or bits of leaves. However when placed in a tank with flakes of gold and gemstones, the caddis flies simply create their protective sheaths from these materials instead.

French artist Hubert Duprat has been utilizing insects to construct some of his 'sculptures' since the early 1980s.

He observed the insects' particular habit of building cases from nearby objects — such as pebbles and twigs. He collected the larvae from their natural environment, relocated them to his studio and placed them in temperature controlled water tanks. He then provided the larvae with miniature pieces of 18-carat gold and different precious stones — turquoise, opals, pearls, rubies and diamonds, with remarkable results.

Caddis, Crystal and Company, a Norfolk and Norwich Festival exhibition at Norwich Castle, is the first solo show of the work of the artist in the UK.

One of the major figures of his generation, Duprat has shown nationally and internationally for over 20 years. Emerging as an artist in the early-1980s, his output has taken many different forms. His work derives from disci-plines and historical precedents that are both combined with and often opposed to issues around modernity and conceptualism.

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Referencing archaeology, architecture, science, craft and art history his sculptures and installations are rooted in research yet are often imbued with a playful undertone.

Duprat's best known — but rarely shown — art is his work with the humble caddis fly larvae and this will be one of the many highlights of the NNF11 exhibition.

His idea was to use natural processes on its head. On entering the exhibition space, visitors to the exhibition will be able to witness the larvae, who themselves measure only 2-3mm and are more usually to be found in stream beds, engaged in their miniature but miraculous labour.

The resulting structures are strikingly gorgeous, but confounding to see surrounding a hairy water bug. Who, in fact, is the artist? Is it Duprat, or is it the fly? Is this even art?

The artworks are fuelled by an insatiable curiosity about science that, Duprat says, dates back to his childhood.

'It dates back a long way,' he says. 'I spent my boyhood and teenage years in the countryside, where I hobnobbed with hunters and fishermen.

'Very early on, I had a keen interest in archaeology and the natural sciences. I made early observations in aquaria, where I installed water scorpions, water-striders, newts, tadpoles, pond skaters, planorbid snails and, right at the outset, caddis worms.'

The inspiration came from watching gold panners. 'In 1979, I came upon gold panners at the Ari�ge river in south western France,' he recalls. 'I then had the idea of providing the caddis fly larvae — the worms that I was already rearing — with gold spangles.

'I watched how the worms incorporated these spangles into their cases; when I took away a worm's case, I noted that it would make another one right away, this time made entirely of spangles.'

He began with only gold spangles but has since also added the kinds of semi-precious and precious stones, including turquoise, opals, lapis lazuli and coral, as well as pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.

The insects do not always incorporate all the available materials into their case designs, and certain larvae, Duprat notes, seem to have better facility with some materials than with others.

Additionally, cases built by one insect and then discarded when it evolves into its fly state are sometimes recovered by other larvae, who may repurpose it by adding to or altering its size and form.

Duprat is exploiting a natural process, showing both the complexity of nature as well as questioning how we judge beauty. And this is why his work is art, because it challenges ideas about the man made and the natural.

Duprat traces his work with the caddis fly larvae back to pioneering nineteenth-century entomologists such as Fran�ois-Jules Pictet and Jean-Henri Fabre, who both conducted experiments in which structure-building insects were given alternative, non-indigenous materials.

Seen within the context of the artist's work the caddis fly larvae project is an example of Duprat's ongoing interest in productive collisions between organic forms and technologised materials.

In addition to his caddis fly works, the exhibition will include a selection of Duprat's enchanting sculptures that include animal heads carved from flint that reference early image making and shadow casting.

Other pieces include a work made from coral that confuses the line between the artificial and the man made as well as sculptures made from pyrite and calcite crystal. More recent installations are made from natural and precious materials including ivory, gold and flint.

Exhibition visitors will also be able to view the winner of this year's Tate Art Shorts — a short film has been made on the artist that includes a rare interview along with footage of the caddis at work.

n Hubert Dupart: Caddis, Crystal and Company runs at Norwich Castle Museum from May 14-21, Mon-Sat 10am-4pm, Sun 1-4pm, special exhibition tickets �3.50 (�3 cons), under-16s �2.60, under-4s free, 01603 495897,