7 December, 2017

Aluminum Ant Hill Art: Beautiful Yet Controversial

What do you see when you look at this picture? Do you see a lovely and intricate metal sculpture? In fact, Mother Nature and a bunch of her little helpers are largely responsible for this amazing creation. Can you guess what it actually is? Is it Scary? Bizarre? Perhaps. Art? You decide. Image source

Here is another beautiful, very complex work from the same artist. Most of his works have been created out of molten metals, such as aluminum. As beautiful as these pieces are, they are also quite controversial. While some people admire and love this artist’s works, others find them very offensive. The artist’s Facebook page is filled with these contradictory opinions. For example, one person commented on his Facebook page, “Desperately want one. Can you send it over to Scotland?” While in the same thread, another person commented, “You are disgusting…” While yet another angry poster called the artist “a closet Jeffrey Dahmer.” Image source

So what are these stunning aluminum sculptures, and how were they created? And, of course, you’re probably wondering why, oh, why, are they so controversial? Well, let us introduce you first to the artist. According to Business Insider, his name is David Gatlin, and he came to the attention of the world when he started posting videos that showed exactly how he created these amazing sculptures. These videos, which appeared on YouTube under the pseudonym Anthill Art, went viral once people realized what Gatlin was doing in order to make these aluminum ant hill art sculptures. Image source

To make one of these molten aluminum ant hill sculptures, Gatlin has to first find an anthill. Yes, that’s right — an anthill. Gatlin typically searches for those that belong to fire ants — or more correctly, the red imported fire ant — because they are considered a pest and a nuisance and they are also not native to North America. These ants first came to the United States around the 1930s from South America. And, sadly, these ants, which love the warmth, can now be found throughout the southern U.S. — sometimes as far north as Oklahoma and Virginia. Image source

Fire ants have a nasty sting that is very painful and contains an alkaloid venom. Their colonies can contain as many as 100,000 to 500,000 fire ants, and when threatened, they will attack in large numbers. Some people have even died from a severe reaction to the fire ant’s venom. Fire ants also cause millions of dollars of damage each year to crops. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, fire ants also kill all types of creatures, including small reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. In other words, these are nasty creatures that very few people actually like. Image source

Once an anthill is identified, Gatlin measures it and then melts down metal — typically aluminum — which he then pours into the entrance to the mound making the controversial liquid aluminum ant hill art. This is where the molten aluminum ant hill controversy comes in. If the colony is viable and still contains ants, some people consider this a barbaric act against living creatures. Others disagree. They reason that pouring metal into a fire anthill is no different than poisoning the colony, which is a method that landowners commonly use to get rid of these pests. Image source

On the YouTube videos that Gatlin made of the process, you can actually see the ground begin to bubble up and swell as the fire ant tunnels start to fill with the molten metal. Wisps of steam can also be seen rising from the mounded earth. And, eventually, the shiny metal begins to peek out of the dirt in some areas. When asked by one of his followers on Facebook how much molten metal Gatlin uses to cast a mound, he replied, “… there’s no way to know exactly how much to use so I usually just estimate and then do a little more. If it’s a large hill, I’ll use the max that I can melt (25 lbs. at this point), for a smaller hill I may do 10-15 lbs. just to be safe.” Image source

Once the molten metal cools, Gatlin carefully digs up his new creation. He first uses a large shovel to free the casting out of the ground. Then he uses a small gardening trowel to remove dirt from around the intricate design of his anthill casting. This can be painstaking work as, according to Gatlin, “The larger colonies probably have thousands of interconnected tunnels and chambers.” Image source

Finally, he will spray the metal ant hill aluminum down with water to rid it of any remaining dirt. According to Gatlin, the casting process does not always work out smoothly. In a series of YouTube videos, Gatlin recorded five different castings that he did during one session to show that his results often varied and, on occasion, even failed. Image source

To Gatlin’s surprise, three of the five castings turned out to be some of his best work. The fifth and last casting, however, that he attempted to make on that evening did not turn out so well. Because he was working in the dark of night, Gatlin accidentally stepped on the colony, ruining it. In truth, though, Gatlin wrote on his YouTube video that he was actually relieved because he was already tired from making casts of the other four anthills. Image source

After Gatlin knocks most of the dirt off of his artworks with water, he then goes in and scrubs away any remaining grit from in between all of the intricate twists and turns of the intertwined ant tunnels. When he’s done he’s left with a stunning piece of ant hill aluminum art that is also a science lesson. Image source

In fact, Gatlin’s castings have not just caught the eye of the general public; he has also been asked to display his fascinating castings at museums. It’s not surprising since these pieces give us a way to view and appreciate the complex underground tunnels that ants create out of our sight. This particular fire ant colony is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry new Numbers in Nature exhibit. While another one of his works was on display in the La Habra Children’s Museum in California. Image source

And in 2015, one of his ant hill art works was featured at the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne in France. His casting can be seen on the left in this display under the heading “Scientia.” Image source

But as stated above, not everyone is a fan of Gatlin’s work. Visitors to his Facebook page, Ant hill art, where he showcases his works are littered with angry comments. For example one commented on the price of his artwork by asking, “How much extra for a recording of tiny terrified screams?” Another visitor to his Facebook page commented darkly, “It’s like an ant genocide memorial.” Yet another posted the following diatribe, “How can you call yourself an artist? Is murder an art? You think so obviously… these are innocent creatures with amazing colonies, which took them who know how long to build. You are in their world, a nuclear weapon! How could you do this? You should be ashamed with yourself.” Image source

As for his original video, which has earned more than 95 million views since it was first uploaded in 2013, Gatlin stated that he had to disable the comments section, because he got sick of everyone bickering about whether or not his work was cruel or not. He also decided to close the comments on his video because he said he could not “get YouTube to stop sending me an email every time someone posted, ‘What if I poured aluminum in your house?’ for the 100th time.” Pictured here is the largest casting Gatlin had made as of October 2016. Image source

Metro News asked Buglife, an insect conservation trust, its thoughts about the casting process. The following is the reply from a Buglife spokesman, Paul Hetherington, “If the nest is empty, we would support this casting as it raises awareness to the fantastic architectural prowess of ants. However, if the ants are still present, it is an extremely cruel way to kill them — of which we disapprove, as they are effectively boiled alive.” Image source

Some of Gatlin’s competitors — and there are other anthill artists out there — claim that they will go out of their way to try to minimize the destruction they may cause to a colony. For example, tomcross.ant-itectural.art, a seller who once marketed his work on eBay, stated in his description of his casting, “We are careful to pour only one main entrance of the mound so that the entire colony is not killed and is able to rebuild, in addition to sprinkling cayenne pepper around the mound the day before we pour to encourage the ants to relocate.” Image source

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