Natural History Museum’s Spider Man Talks About Bourgeois

Jonathan Coddington talks Bourgeois spider sculptures on display at the Hirshhorn

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Our ears perked here at ATM when we heard that Jonathan Coddington, senior curator of entomology at the National Museum of Natural History, is giving a gallery talk tomorrow on Louise Bourgeois’ spider sculptures at the Hirshhorn. It’s not everyday that insect folks provide commentary on art.

I checked in with Coddington, whose research focuses on spiders, for a "sneak sound bite" of his lecture. We got caught up in a conversation about how Bourgeois considers spiders to be motherly protectresses. And light bulb turned on and Coddington offered this insight into why spiders are a symbol of femininity and why it is that they are feared:

"The hate part is actually unequally distributed around the world. It’s mostly in patriarchal cultures. For example, all of North America and Japan as well, which is also pretty patriarchal, have their myths about spiders, and the general motif for spiders is negative—that they bite and they lurk. But in other cultures, not necessarily matriarchal but more tied to the land, which would be in South America, Africa, Thailand and India, spiders are seen as being positive. The Navajo actually have a spider deity that taught them to weave, so they’re seen as positive, which is what Bourgeois seems to be cluing into."

"Marta Weigle argues that spiders sort of carry the burden of a point of view that we’re not very comfortable with in this culture, and that’s why they have these sort of negative connotations. Whereas other cultures, which more easily connect to a feminine source of power, feminine psyche, feminine psychic energy, see them in a much more positive light.

"Femininity has been attached to spiders for a long, long time because the original myth of Arachne. Many cultures independently have chosen spiders as a symbol of that, whether it’s because they make webs, I don’t know. The mystery remains to me, why spiders? Why not termites?"

To hear more of what Coddington has to say, stop over to the Hirshhorn on your lunch hour tomorrow. His talk is from 12:30pm to 1pm. And for more Bourgeois, check out the trailer for a documentary being produced about the artist's work.

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