Spiders! You may love them, like Wilbur the pig does, in E. B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web; or they may frighten you away, like the tiny creature that startled Little Miss Muffet, as she sat eating her curds and whey. As for me, well, I wouldn’t want to find one climbing up my arm or falling unexpectedly on my head—I want to know exactly where they are at all times—but I have spent many a fascinating hour reading about them, watching them as they spin their webs, catch their prey, enjoy their meals, mate, tend to their eggs, and hatch the next generation. For a short time during my junior high school days I even kept a family of Black Widows in our garage; that is, until a roly-poly classmate of mine—there’s always one in every group—deliberately killed the entire widow family by spilling a beaker of sulfuric acid on them following a Show & Tell session. I suppose he thought he was saving the neighborhood. artes fine arts magazine
Spiders have always fascinated me. And I am not alone. For decades, writers, artists, and filmmakers have turned their creative hand and eye, seemingly bringing spiders to life. The 1950s were especially rife with mutant, killer spider B-movies, stoking our unconscious fears of Cold War nuclear annihilation and our deep-seated fear of being bitten by a stealthy creature of the night. Those suffering from arachnophobia (an active fear of spiders) have it worse. Amplifying these fears, they conjure up visions of being caught in a spider’s web, wrapped in silk, and having their blood sucked dry, a thought not too far removed from being attacked by a vampire. Movies have successfully capitalized on these themes. Think, Twilight and Spiderman, both multi-billion dollar movie franchises. You can also throw in for good measure Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, currently one of Broadway’s top moneymaking plays.
Out of the thousands of spider-centric artworks that have crossed my path – and I do maintain a mental catalogue of such things – the work of three artists has managed to create a lasting impression with me, each portraying the spider in a different manner and medium. First to come to mind when I think of spiders, more often than not, is Arachnophobia, the 1990 American-made horror/comedy film (left). Promoted with the tag line, “Eight Legs, Two Fangs and an Attitude,” the story, which had me brushing imaginary spiders off my shoulders, centers on a newly-discovered race of deadly Venezuelan spiders. A male spider accidentally transported to a small American town—in a coffin with a dead body no less—finds himself a mate who, while doing double duty, multiplies aplenty. Soon, countless offspring begin to pick off the town’s residents, one by one. Three hundred and seventy-four live, but totally harmless, creepy-crawly, New Zealand Avondale spiders were ‘cast’ as the movie’s protagonist. It is this kind of portrayal and exploitation, in this case, an innocuous species, that gives spiders a bad name.
Less well known are the exquisitely rendered spider drawings of French artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Working under the radar until J. K. Huysmans mentions his work in his classic novel of decadence, A Rebours (1884)—translated: Against Nature—Redon assumes a friendlier, more anthropomorphic view of the spider. In Crying Spider (1881), the artist adds a human face to the spider’s body, which art historians Katarzyna and Sergiusz Michalski suggest—in their fine little book Spider (Reaktion Books, 2010)—might be a depiction of the artist’s own mental anguish. In his Smiling Spider (right), an 1881 lithograph, agrinning spider, with ten legs rather than the usual eight, is seen performing a lopsided dance. In a letter written to his wife just before he began his series, Redon relates the story of a spider he found on his red bolster, which he subsequently befriended and placed on a wall so ‘she’ could watch him work. Perhaps remembering Jules Michelet’s description of the love life of spiders as the ‘dark romances of our ceiling’, the artist associates the spider with his beloved spouse.
The most wondrous of all contemporary spiders in art—“an ode to my mother” the artist is quoted as saying—belongs to Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Though producing art since the 1940s, it wasn’t until Maman (Mother), Bourgeois’ late nineties series of humungous spider sculptures—one sculpture is over 30 feet tall and 33 feet wide—that well-deserved fame and recognition found her. Museums all over the world coveted her work, standing in line to display it, as well as buy. “My mother was my best friend,” Bourgeois liked to say. “Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.” In 2011 one of Bourgeois’ spider works sold for $10.7 million, a record price for the artist at auction, and the highest price paid for a work by a woman artist.
The American Museum of Natural History’s mini-blockbuster Spider’s Alive! is cleverly cashing in on the recent Spiderman craze—and why not! They do house the world’s largest research collection of spiders. Populated by hordes of excited children, with parents in tow, this show which runs through December 2, 2012, appears to be the most popular exhibition in the city. Lots of yellow school buses were lined up the day I visited. Essentially an introductory, Spiders 101 course, the exhibit use live spiders—a spider zoo if, you will—as the big draw. The exhibition gets an educational boost with videos, lots of signage, and mesmerizing, live Tarantula demonstrations magnified on a video screen, which highlights the spider’s anatomy, behavior and unique characteristics. Adding playfulness to the event – no doubt to let the little ones know that spiders can also be lots of fun – the exhibition also includes a gigantic, colorfully-crafted, spider sculpture on which visitors can sit to have their picture taken (see below).
(Right) The American Museum of Natural History, NYC, entrance, with a large spider over the front entrance (Summer, 2012).
The exhibition, with some 20 unique spiders, each residing in their own aquarium-like habitat, is reminiscent of the tropical fish section of a pet shop. It is situated in three, or maybe four large rooms. The overall low-lighting of the exhibition, a mood-setting frisson that underscores the point that it is just you and the spiders, is designed to capture a horror-movie-set mood. The challenge, if not the fun of this portion of the exhibit—since many of the spiders seem to be ‘lost’ among the foliage of their habitat, if not hiding from peering eyes—is to locate the spiders in their recreated natural setting, while not becoming their next victim. Not that this can happen in the safe confines of the museum exhibition hall, but the primordial thought continues to lurk in the back of every visitor’s mind.
Due to their frighteningly-large size, and hairy bodies, the Tarantula demonstrations always get to play the starring role. Aside from this, poisonous spiders with ‘killer’ reputations, like the Black Window, or South American Brown Recluse, the so-called ‘second leads,’ get the most attention. I can still hear one child, excitedly jumping up and down, asking his father is it really true that this tiny weenie spider with the red mark on it belly can kill a person. The father’s droll reply, “Only if it bites you.” Just as in books and images from centuries past, here, once again, the lethal qualities of these tiny creatures cause even the youngest among us to become keenly aware of our own mortality.
While many people believe they are well-informed about spiders—having been around for at least 350 million years—the Museum of Natural History exhibition lets us know that there is a lot more to these little creatures than meets the eye—and a lot that can amaze us about them. Signage tells us that there are more than 43,000 species of spiders identified, to date. They inhabit every continent, but Antarctica. Less than 1% has venom dangerous to humans. An acre of woodland spiders can consume more than 80 pounds of insects a year. All spiders have fangs, 8 legs, and eight eyes, arranged in patterns that vary from group-to-group. Most web-based spiders, which wait for their food to come to them, have poor eyesight. However, non-web based spiders that actively stalk and hunt down their prey have excellent vision. Spider silk is produced in glands inside the abdomen. Each silk gland leads to a particular spigot that opens to the outside through one of several paired spinnerets. A spider “reels” out silk by gently pulling it from a spigot with its two hind legs. A one-inch thick braided cord of spider silk has more tensile strength than a steel cable of the same dimension. Spiders taste and smell through sensory organs on their legs as well as on their pedipalps (“feelers” on the face). They also hear by sensing vibrations through the hair and tiny slits distributed over much of their body.
In spite of the museum’s effort to portray their collection of spiders authentically in their natural settings, most of them—however frightful in appearance, just sit and watch you, watching them! The most exciting and visually informative part of the exhibition, certainly for those viewers who want to see some action, are the videos accompanying each individual spider display. It is here that we get to see various species—each with their own personality – weave their webs, court their spouses, mate, and stalk, trap, catch, kill, and eat their prey. The videos underscore the message that not all spiders live in webs. Some spend most of their time in underground burrows, emerging mainly to grab prey. The Wolf spider, aided by sharp vision and its ability to sense vibrations, searches for food on foot. The Fishing spider rests it legs on the surface of the water at the shoreline and when prey gets close, it pounces; while the Bolas spider lures male moths into their grasp by creating a suspended ball of sticky silk with chemical properties that mimic female moths. The Goliath bird eater, one of the largest spiders in the world, preys on snakes, mice and frogs but, despite the name, rarely birds, and never people; which is only one of the 43,000 reasons-one for each species of spider-that you should see ‘Spiders Alive.’ Another: try going around feeding time. The spiders could use some two-legged company, me thinks!
By Edward Rubin, Contributing Writer
“Spiders Alive!” runs through Dec. 2 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street; (212) 769-5200. Visitors can purchase tickets online at the American Museum of Natural History. The entrances are timed in order to keep the crowds small which means you will have a chance to see some once in a lifetime spiders.
Go to: www.amnh.org