Any visitor to Nicola Hooper’s Zoonoses exhibition will be immediately confronted by a gigantic mosquito and a gigantic tick hanging by fishing line from the ceiling. The idea behind these models, according to the artist, is to bring a sense of sublimity to these tiny creatures so that their new stature corresponds with the fearful awe they might inspire as carriers of death and disease.
The term ‘zoonoses’ refers to infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans – 75 per cent of new human diseases are zoonotic. Hooper’s largely paper-based works (including prints, artist books, sculptures and wallpapers) are therefore full of insects, rabbits, birds, rats and even kangaroos.
“Tiny insects such as fleas and mosquitoes have been responsible for the deaths of millions of people throughout history and their size is certainly not reflective of their deadly capabilities,” says Hooper.
“The more I researched the more frightening they became.”
As part of the show, Hooper will present a blown-up quote printed on the wall from the philosopher Edmund Burke, which she describes as “summing up perfectly the inspiration for the giant insects.” In his 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke wrote, “There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater.”
Hooper’s treatment of zoonotic diseases expands in two further fascinating intertwined ways. Firstly, she considers how humans have demonised and persecuted those animals with zoonotic capabilities, while denying the risks posed by our ‘companion’ animals such as cats and dogs. The second is Hooper’s delicate – occasionally even delightful, in a rather warped way – threading of familiar nursery rhymes, fairy tales and myths through her art. In particular, she offers macabre reinterpretations of the Peter Rabbit stories, Sing a Song of Sixpence and Puss in Boots through surreal lithographs and lithographic sculptures.
“I grew up in England in a village with its origins in early Anglo-Saxon times,” says Brisbane-based Hooper.
“As young children, we would chant rhymes like Ring a Ring o’ Roses. Years later, when reading about this rhyme’s purported origins in the bubonic plague, I considered how rhymes can be utilised in modern society as a way to discuss frightening concepts in a child-friendly way.
“Zoonoses is a quite terrifying concept and my research has enabled me to address this using the visual narrative of ‘gentle’ illustrative fairy tale iconology and rhymes while still accurately discussing the pathogens and hosts themselves.”
Hooper’s interest in zoonotic diseases began as a result of the pork insulin she was using for diabetes, which prompted her to consider her relationship with pigs. Around the same time, her husband was hospitalised with influenza A and was subsequently tested for avian flu and other zoonotic diseases, which consolidated her curiosity in this area.
Hooper cites as an influence Patricia Piccinini’s investigation of teratoma tumours in her We Are Family installation at Venice Biennale in 2003. She also acknowledges the inspiration gained from German sculptor Katharina Fritsch and Canadian artist Marcel Dzama.
Another crucial element to Zoonoses – and one that allows the exhibition to address our 21st-century fears – is the notion of moral panic and the media.
As we corresponded for this article, Hooper sent me two garishly sensationalist front pages from The Courier Mail regarding Zika and Ebola that served as imagery and language to reflect and perpetuate, as she puts it, “moral panic and social anxiety.”
She also alludes to how (mis)representation of such issues in the media can create a ‘folk devil’ phenomenon, something that once more harks back to the rhymes and dubious narratives concerning disease of times past.
“A ‘folk devil’ can be interpreted as a virus or disease, animal host, or person that is represented as disproportionately dangerous or evil in public opinion or by media representation,” says Hooper. “An association can be made by both this modern-day theory and also the negative representations of animals through myth and popular culture.”