Curatorial Projects > Ants in the City (2013)

Ants in the City - A Solo Exhibition Featuring Works by Su-Chen Hung

April 10 - May 25, 2013
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

Ants in the City is a solo exhibition project by San Francisco-based artist Su-Chen Hung. 18th Century British poet William Blake wrote, “To see a world from a grain of sand,” and so Hung examines our world from the perspective of ants. Working with light, space, sound, movement, and stillness, Hung’s work is simple and elegant, accessible and contemplative. She has utilized a variety of media in both installation and performance contexts to investigate a diversity of social, cultural, and environmental concerns, and viewers often become performers in her work, intentionally or otherwise.

In the immersive video installation Ants in the City, Hung used a macro lens over a 38-hour span to document an ant colony as they slowly devoured red stained sugar and relayed it back to their home. Scurrying about and emitting specific phermones and antennae signals to communicate with one another, we might observe the ants displaying frustration, anger, and even gluttony – acts compatible with our own behavior. There are more than 10,000 known ant species around the world, and over 100 species native to the Bay Area alone. Some early myrmecologists – scientists who study ants – considered ant society as an ideal social system, and sought to find solutions to human problems by studying them. There is a hiearchy within the ant world: a queen, male ants (which are only around for reproduction), soldiers, and workers. Whether protecting the nest, foraging for food, or procreating, each ant serves a particular function within the colony. Reflecting on our own human existence, Hung questions the relationships formed between humans within our larger urban environment. Do we function as part of a larger, structured system like an ant colony, or are we individuals working together for a cause? As ants divide into castes of labor and occupy one role their whole life, are our social positions stratifed this way as well?

What are ants? Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the mid-Cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. There are more than 10,000 known ant species around the world, and over 100 species native to the Bay Area. Ants have colonized almost every landmass on earth; the only places lacking indigenous ants are Antarctica and a few remote or inhospitable islands. Ants are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and a distinctive node-like structure that forms a slender waist. They are six-legged insects and their bodies are divided into three sections — head, thorax, and abdomen. Usually 1/16 inch to almost 2 inches in length, ants can vary in color: red, black, brown, yellow, green, or even metallic blue.

Ants store food in the crop, an organ in the abdomen, and to feed other members of the colony, they regurgitate the food. Ants have strong jaws called mandibles that are used for chewing, cutting, killing, and tearing. For self-defense, some ants are capable of stinging their enemies or burning them by squirting formic acid. The sense of smell for ants is highly developed. Glands in the abdomen secrete pheromones, chemical substances that allow ants to identify and communicate with each other. These pheromones enable ants to sound an alarm if there is danger, to track their paths,
and also to attract mates.

Touch is another heightened sense that ants depend on to navigate around, utilizing receptors on their feet and hairs on their legs to sense the environment. The claw-hooks on their legs allow ants to latch onto dirt, trees, or leaves in order to walk, climb, and dig. Ants are incredibly strong and are able to lift more than three times their own weight. Vision, on the other hand, varies greatly amongst ant species. Some may have well-developed vision, while others can only sense light and darkness, and some are even blind.

What are the social behaviors of ants? Ants are social creatures meaning that they live in communities, known as colonies, and members of the community depend on one another. They typically live in structured nest communities that may be located underground, on ground level in mounds, or up in trees. Some ant nests may reach 20 feet below the ground and mounds may be as large as 5 feet tall. Ant colonies sometimes are described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.

Ants thrive in most ecosystems and their success in so many different environments has been attributed to their social organization and ability to modify habitats, tap resources, and defend themselves. Ant societies have division of labor, communication between individuals, and an ability to solve complex problems. These parallels with human societies have long been an inspiration and subject of study. Ants perform many ecological roles that are beneficial to humans, including the suppression of pest populations and aeration of soil. The use of weaver ants in citrus cultivation in southern China is considered one of the oldest known applications of biological control.

There is a hierarchy within the ant world: a queen, male ants (which are only around for reproduction), soldiers, and workers. Each is responsible for specific functions within the colony. Designating which larvae are to become queens, males, or worker/soldier ants depend on various factors. If a fertilized egg receives special attention and more nutrients, it renders a winged female queen. Unfertilized eggs become winged males. The majority of the fertilized eggs that do not receive extra attention become sterile, female worker ants or soldier ants. During specific seasons, matured winged virgin queens and matured winged males perform a nuptial flight to mate and create new colonies. The queen’s role is to lay thousands of eggs to ensure the survival of the ant colony. Tended and fed by worker ants, the queen resides deep within the nest and can live from 5 to 50 years. Some colonies are able to house hundreds of queens.

A primary role of male ants is to mate with the queen. After they have performed this function, they die shortly after. Worker and soldier ants are responsible for carrying out various tasks such as creating new chambers to enlarge the nest, protect and repair the nest, tend to the queens and young, forage for food, and fight enemies. There may be only one kind of worker, or there may be several kinds, with body structures specialized for different types of work. The activity of workers is coordinated mostly through pheromones and body contact.

- Kevin B. Chen