Moths

by Helen Barker

We have several moths flying around our house in the evenings. They circle the lamp in the living room for hours. Great big shadows of them are projected on our walls, so that we feel as though we are sat inside a snow globe of shady shapes. Two days ago a moth landed on the outside of my window. A pretty big one too. I took a photograph of it before it flew away. And I started thinking about moths and how they like light so much.

There are probably as many theories circulating about why moths are drawn to the light as there are moths circulating the bright shining bulb in my bathroom. Here are three possibilities and some reflections on them. These are a few thoughts and musings which are close to my heart at the moment.

1. Navigation; by maintaining a relationship with a bright light, such as the moon, moths can keep in a straight line. “Celestial objects are so far away, that even after travelling great distances, the change in angle between the moth and the light source is negligible; further, the moon will always be in the upper part of the visual field or on the horizon. When a moth encounters a much closer artificial light and uses it for navigation, the angle changes noticeably after only a short distance, in addition to being often below the horizon. The moth instinctively attempts to correct by turning toward the light, causing airborne moths to come plummeting downwards, and resulting in a spiral flight path that gets closer and closer to the light source.” Thanks Wikipedia. We all use light to navigate. It’s pretty hard to see where you’re going in the dark. But sometimes, the wrong kind of light, the wrong strength or direction it’s coming from, can hinder us more than help us. Lately I’ve been thinking about my art practice in terms of lights and darks. Where does the light by which I navigate my work come from? What am I circling, and why? I  guess I’m talking about two things; inspiration and agenda. What is the inspiration behind my work, and what agenda does my work have? Recently I watched a documentary on the life of Joan Baez and was incredibly affected by the way in which she always tried to live by the moral code she sang about. Not only that, but she really knew what her work was about and what it was for – it’s purpose. Now, we’re not all called to be radical social motivators, the world would be pretty terrible if every artist tried to do the same thing. We are each doing something uniquely important, the trick is to work out what that thing is for you. I’ve been challenged to consider my sources, and to ask myself if I’m really carving a path with them, or if I’m simply flying aimlessly around an artificial interest that gives me incorrect information to work with. I’m not proffering any answers here, simply musing over the need for us to consider the light by which we see.

2. Survival; “To a moth in danger, flying toward the light (which is usually in the sky, or at least upward) tends to be a more advantageous response than flying toward darkness (which is usually downward)”. Thank you How Stuff Works. 

When I was a child I was terrified of the dark. I used to have to have my bedroom door ajar with the landing light on before I could sleep soundly. I needed to know that there was life out there, life happening around me. And that nothing could come out of the shadows when I wasn’t looking. Darkness means danger to so many creatures, even humans fear it. But often it can be more than a literal lack of sunshine, it can be a state of mind. Living in the dark is difficult, it’s hard to find the light switch when you’re alone. At the moment, I feel like making visual work is like trying to draw in the dark. I can’t see what I’m doing, I’m afraid of what might creep up behind me and destroy what I’m doing, and I have no idea what I’m looking at when I’ve done it. I believe that sometimes we go through a necessary crisis with our work in order to be challenged and therefore strengthened by it. But I also believe much of the artist’s dilemma/block is about choice. Sometimes we might think we’re in the dark, but we’ve just got our eyes closed. Being brave enough to open them means being brave enough to accept what we can see, and not just what we imagine we want to see. And sometimes we just have to put the landing light on and remember that we are not alone. 3. Visual distortion; “When the moths get close to the light, a different kind of behavior takes over. Instead of being attracted to the light, the moth is actually trying to avoid the light. To a creature of the night like a moth, daylight and by extension any bright light means danger. The moth doesn’t fly directly away from the light due to a peculiarity of vision called a Mach band. A Mach band, which apparently is common to all sighted creatures, is the region surrounding a bright light that seems darker than any other part of the sky. Henry Hsiao conjectured that the moth’s atom-sized brain figures the darkest part of the sky is safest. So it circles the light in the Mach band region, usually at a radius of about one foot, depending on the species. Eventually either its momentum carries it away or it finds a dark corner to hole up in.” Thank you The Straight Dope. 

Another form of darkness is blindness – and not just visual impairment. Often people are blind to ideas, experiences, world affairs, neighbours etc. Blind to the goings-on of the human race, and blind to the possibilities for the future. I think that imagination has a lot to do with not being blind. I heard a really good talk at a church today by Jane Yeadon in which she spoke about the future being made present today. Are there things in the future that are in our future because we’re too afraid, or feel unable to do them today, in our present? Are there things that just shouldn’t wait? Are we staying in the Mach band region of the light field because it feels safer? Are we making work that looks familiar, or is tried and tested or even expected of us by our peers, universities, friends and galleries? Are we actually very close to the light but blinded by the visual distortion of our own self-limitations? These are questions I am asking myself today, as I think about where my work will go next and what it might look like.