Photographs from the book courtesy of Klea McKenna
When Terence McKenna died in 2000, his belongings included his art, his books, and, among other things, an insect collection. In 2007, his library of more than 3,000 books was destroyed in a fire that started in a Quiznos. The next year, his daughter, Klea McKenna, creatively preserved his insect collection by publishing a book called The Butterfly Hunter, featuring 122 insects—119 butterflies/moths and three beetles or beetle-like insects—that Terence collected between 1969 and 1972.
The insects are photographed with the pieces of scrap paper that Terence used to wrap them in—magazine ads, newspaper articles, typewritten manuscript pages. Each photograph is an arrangement, and each page is a part of a narrative. As Klea, an artist and photographer, wrote in the book’s foreword:
The years of 1969 to 1972 were deeply formative for him; he had left home and childhood behind, but did not yet have a family or a public persona. He was deciding who he would be. As I examine this period I choose to accept the myth. I see it as filled with romance and gravitas, as though he is a character in a book, his chosen and serendipitous actions writing each twist in the plot.Also in the book: maps showing Terence’s route through Southeast Asia and South America; a four-page story called “The Butterfly Guru” that was found “in Terence’s old digital files” and dated “June 8, 1990, 10:42AM”; an image of Terence’s passport (6’2'', brown hair, brown eyes); and three photographs along with little notes that Terence (writing about himself in third person as “H.C.E.”—a Finnegans Wake reference) sent home from Asia.
The Butterfly Hunter may be ordered on Klea McKenna’s website. The following interview was done by email.
*VICE: I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has been interested in butterfly collecting. It seems like a rare hobby. What were your impressions of butterflies and butterfly collecting/hunting growing up?
Klea McKenna:I knew from a very young age that it was something that had been important to my dad and was part of his life before we were born. It was consistent with his general obsession with Victorian-era explorers and naturalists. Close observation of nature was built into my family’s worldview by both of my parents, and so my brother and I were conditioned to think and see that way. But for me the practice of butterfly collecting always had an air of mystery, romance, and even darkness about it. In our house we had one big chest of glass drawers with butterflies that Terence had spread and mounted, but the vast majority of them (about 2,000) were still folded in their original scraps of newspaper and tucked into this ancient looking trunk. I don’t think they’d been opened since he caught them. My mom remembers that back in the 70s, when he was still collecting, he had become quite squeamish and even guilt-ridden about the act of killing them, and that’s what had led him to stop collecting and probably kept him from opening that trunk for many years. When I was about nine or ten years old, he saw that I was interested and trained me in the basics of how to spread and mount them, so for the first time I got a glimpse into that strange treasure trove. It was a special activity we shared for a while.
Did you—or do you now—know what the hunting process was like for Terence? There’s a photo of him in your book in all-white clothing, carrying a deep, white net attached to a six-foot or so pole. I’m curious how the butterflies and the four beetle-seeming insects that are also in your book were captured and killed and preserved. I imagine Terence, whom I’ve read was 6'2'', strategically waving the long pole around in the foreground of a waterfall.
Yes, it’s sort of a romantic scene to imagine, but also very comical. He had had a fascination with the Victorian naturalists and explorers since he was a kid, particularly Alfred Russel Wallace (whose collection of Amazonian specimens famously caught fire and sunk into the ocean while in transit back to Europe). So for Terence to embody that persona, take on the look and dress and methods of those fellows, was in part practical, but it was also a bit of theater. He was playing a role. He was very self-aware of his own legacy, particularly when he was young, as though in living his life he was consciously authoring the story of his life. During that period he would type little narrative captions on the back of his snapshots that referred to himself in the third person (and with a pseudonym). Now, to me, it seems like a kind of youthful naiveté, but also charmingly theatrical. We all play various roles throughout our lives; he just chose such an unlikely one.
As for the actual collection method, I don’t know all the details of it, but I do know that it wasn’t random, he wasn’t just catching whatever he found. He was seeking particular species and going to locations where he thought he would find those. He primarily collected in Indonesia and Colombia, and way off the beaten path. He really educated himself on lepidoptera, and, as we know, he had the kind of mind that could retain incredible detail, so he applied that skill to this pursuit as well. He then folded each specimen into a piece of paper and wrote on it the exact location and date of where he had caught it. It’s this information that allowed me to map his travels all these years later.
As a child growing up in an environment that—much more than the average household, I imagine—supported and featured “close observation of nature,” what kind of hobbies or interests did you develop?
Both our parents were ethnobotanists of sorts, so observing nature closely was a given. It was drilled into us to examine and decipher what we saw around us, particularly during the early years when we lived “off-the-grid” on the Big Island in Hawaii. But actually I wanted to be a dancer, and I danced quite seriously well into my late teens. I remember at about age 12 telling myself, “My parents and my brother are nature people, but I’m not; I’m about people and culture and cities.” It must have been a way of trying to differentiate myself from my family, to individuate. But around that age I also got into photography and visual art, which ultimately took over and led me back, via abstraction, to the natural world, and now, of course, my work is all about it. My mom and my brother both have always made art as well. So really we are all cut from the same cloth; it’s unavoidable.
While creating this book—and the interactive photographic installation that preceded this book—did you gain any new perspectives on your father, the world, or butterflies?
Absolutely. I began this project in 2008, so eight years after Terence died. I can see now, that on a personal level it really was my way of finally mourning him. I had been 19 when he died and in the throws of all kinds of personal turmoil, so I think it took me that long to get to a place where I was ready to fully process it. The act of sifting through 2,000 of these hand-folded envelopes and insects, and then handling them and photographing them, felt like a sort of reenactment; the mirror image of what he had done 40 years earlier. I’ve always seen this project as a collaboration between him and me, so it felt as though there was a bit of communication happening across the decades. I did this work very methodically, for two hours every morning, taking advantage of the natural light in my studio. I was struck by the incredible poetry that can be created by chance and by the temporal parallels between nature and culture. The bizarre combination of these fragile bodies with fragments of headlines from that volatile era (1968–1972) certainly taught me about the parallel narratives present in any history, and about art and how image and text can combine to evoke emotions far bigger than what they represent.
Can you share a little about the photo installation in 2008 that was the first iteration of The Butterfly Hunter?
Yes. The first form The Butterfly Hunter took was a gallery installation of 105 photographs of the specimens and the papers they had been wrapped in. I had sifted though all 2,000 of the specimens, photographed about 400, and edited it down to these 105. So really the creative process was one of editing and finding a way to let the strangeness of this material speak for itself. They were printed at a size that was true to life and installed in a giant grid, 25 feet long and just barely pinned to the wall, dangling so that as you walked by they would sort of flutter and shift from the air movement. I wanted you to feel the scale of this archive, but also feel that it was temporary and fleeting rather than enshrined. While making this work I had thought a lot about preservation and what it takes to preserve a rare species, a paper image, the memory of a person—it all seemed wrapped up in this material. I think that often our instinct is to covet something we want to preserve, hide it away and keep it to ourselves. But there’s a burden in this action and I was looking to let go rather than hold on. So in that first exhibition I gradually gave away every photograph in the installation to gallery visitors. People took their choice very seriously and I had great conversations with them about why they chose the one they chose. It became a sort of interactive performance and it was my hope that this gesture of dispersal would lift the burden off of me and find a more collective form of preservation. It felt great. I can still say that it was the most pleasurable exhibition I’ve ever had.
The following summer I reworked the material into book form and published the artist book The Butterfly Hunter as a different way to share the archive. Ultimately I plan to place the actual specimens with a natural history museum or institution, but I have yet to find the right fit.
What were some of the reasons that people gave for their choices?
They were mostly personal. They remembered where they had been the day they had seen that same newspaper headline, that sort of thing. It’s interesting how the news unites us, creates a collective memory.
This seems to be your only project that involves images of creatures and people, a family member, and also a public figure, and it involves all four of those. I’m curious how you view The Butterfly Hunter in the context of your other work.
Most of my work consists of photograms; I use analog light-sensitive methods and am deeply invested in the physics of light and a very hands-on kind of material experimentation that often results in near-abstraction. But it’s all rooted in the observation of nature, risk-taking and a kind of visual alchemy. The Butterfly Hunter was different because the material that generated it was so unlikely and came to me in such a unique way, it’s not often that you inherit a trunk filled with exotic insects and little scraps of history, so in that sense it was an anomaly that couldn’t be repeated. That said, it has certainly informed the work I’ve made since and there are several common, if subtle, threads: the close, almost meditative observation of nature; working in a method that forces me to go out into the landscape to inconvenient places and interact with the elements much the way a natural scientist would; constantly subjecting my process and its results to chance and risk. And on a very simple level, many of my photograms involve intricately folding the paper before it’s exposed to light. I can’t help but think this fixation on folding might have started with all the unfolding I did while making The Butterfly Hunter. To fold something is to make it more complex, more concealed and more material. It’s a simple act that turns an image into an object and reminds us that every photograph is just a piece of paper, ephemeral and decaying.
I like this: “To fold something is to make it more complex, more concealed and more material.” What are you working on now or next?
My solo show, No Light Unbroken, just opened at Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles and will be up through October 14. It includes a lot of new work from the last two years, so it’s exciting to put it out there and see it all together in one space. As for what’s next, I always have a backlog of ideas that I’m mulling over and testing to see what floats to the surface. When I’m busy working on one project I keep a running list of ideas, so that when I reach a lull I have material to pull from. That said, my process is so driven by the possibilities and limitations of light sensitive material that I really have to dive in and just try things, get my hands dirty, it can be dangerous for me to get too wrapped up in preconceiving a piece.
In addition to making new work I would actually love to exhibit The Butterfly Hunter again. I have new ideas for how I’d like to change and expand the installation if it were shown in a public space or museum. It’s something I like to think about in the middle of the night. But I’m in no rush; I’m waiting for the perfect context.
*Next week in this column I’ll interview Klea’s brother, Finn, who was born in 1978. Finn’s internet presence is currently limited, from what I’ve found, to some photographs and a few peripheral appearances in “Terence McKenna on the Natch" (1999).