"I see art-making as an excuse to learn other things," says artist Maria Lux, whose research for her installation Eat, Drink, and Be Merry led her to the Field Museum in Chicago to look through drawers full of dead vultures.
The first thing you notice when entering Upfor Gallery is a plinth topped with neat rows of 3-D-printed vulture skulls. There are 97 of them, a reference to the percentage of vultures that died off in the Great Indian Vulture Crisis.
What is the Indian vulture crisis, and why does it matter? Here is the short version: Hindus keep cows for milk but do not partake of their flesh. When cows die, vultures provide two important services by eating the carcasses and picking the bones so beautifully clean that nearby residents can sell them for bone china (yes, it is made of actual bone). Turns out, though, that a drug dairy farmers were injecting in their cows was fatal to the raptors, killing them off almost entirely. In their place, wild dogs and rats have come for the rotting feast. Unlike the vultures, though, they act as carriers for cattle pathogens such as rabies, anthrax and the plague, killing tens of thousands of people.
To bring this complicated chain reaction into form, Lux sets a Victorian-inspired table in the corner of the gallery, where a cake, topped with a miniature dead cow, is served on bone china. A tiny pack of dogs crouches in wait. Lux's sense of humor is delicious and macabre when backed, as it is, by chilling data.
Lux's symbolism is multilayered and often subtle. It is a thrill to discover that the ornate pattern decorating one of her painting's frames is actually the molecular structures of SARS, Ebola, rabies and the other viruses harbored by animals and spread to humans.
A lot of this visual information would be missed were it not for "Much to Digest," Lux's statement that accompanies to the show, featuring photos, musings and essays—everything a viewer needs to make sense of the elements that might otherwise go over our heads. By speaking to us directly in this way, but still leaving room for our curiosity and revelation (the chandelier is made of bats!), Lux gives us a chance to have the fullest possible experience with her work and to appreciate the fruits of her research.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry is a compelling distillation of the complicated relationship between animals and people. Lux succeeds in illustrating how, in our attempts to provide abundance for ourselves, we often cause the opposite by tinkering with the natural order.