top of page
  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

Art Studio, Week 6 24-28 Aug 2020

Researching biological processes of cicada and other artists and art movements that investigate this area, photography with Peter Miles and engaging Weta Workshop.

1.RESEARCH ON CICADA BIOLOGICAL PROCESSES What I've learnt so far from Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Olly Hills' Cicada of New Zealand, Cicada Mania, Magic Cicada, Cicada Songs, Cicada Central, Wikipedia and You Tube:

  • the scientific classification for cicada is : Kingdom - Animalia Phylum - Arthropoda Class - Insecta Order - Hemiptera (sucking mouthparts) Infraorder - Cicadomorpha Superfamily - Cicadoidea Families - Tettigarctidae and Cicadidae

  • cicadidae have been on earth for over 40 million years (paleocene) and the tettigarctidae family of the hairy cicadas in Australia are dated to 240 million years

  • the Cicadidae family has over 3,200 species worldwide

  • Aotearoa /NZ cicada are part of the Cicadidae family and evolved from 2 species that arrived 11-15 million years ago from New Caledonia and Australia

  • 5 genera of cicada are native to Aotearoa and contain 42 identified species: Genera 1: Clapping cicada (Amphipsalta) - (3 species) - chorus cicada or Kihikihi wawa (Amphipsalta zelandica) - clapping cicada (Amphipsalta cingulata) - chirping cicada (Amphipsalta strepitans) Genera 2: Kikihi cicada (Kikihia) - (16 species) - greater bronze cicada (Kikihia cauta) - lesser bronze cicada (Kikihia scutellaris) - green foliage cicada - few markings (2 species) - green foliage cicada - faded/absent other markings (6 species) - green foliage cicada - dark markings (3 species) - grass and shrub cicada (3 species) Genera 3: Black cicada (Maoricicada) - (19 species) - lowland cicadas (5 species) - subalpine to alpine cicadas (3 species) - scree cicadas (4 species) - speargrass and dusky cicadas (4 species) - alpine to subnival cicadas (3 species) Genera 4: Clay bank cicada (Notopsalta) - (1 species) Genera 5: Redtail cicadas (Rhodopsalta) - (3 species)

  • cicada thrive throughout NZ and have successfully colonised all habitats, from alpine to lowlands

  • the te reo name for cicada is kihikihi wāwā (to roar like the rain) or tarakihi, the shell ngengeti and historically Māori ate the nymph kihikihi wai

  • NZ cicada are identified by body and wing size, colouring and patterning, song, location and gender (female is larger and has an oviposter for laying eggs)

  • they go through 5 instar moults; four nymph moults below ground and one final moult above ground as the cicada develops into adulthood and sexual maturity (instar from the Latin īnstar, "form", "likeness")

  • during summer female cicada lay 80-200 eggs in a herringbone pattern in slits made in branches

  • eggs hatch during winter and spring when wingless nymphs crawl out of the egg, fall to the ground and burrow 40-100cm into the soil

  • cicada nymphs feed on sap from tree roots, inserting needle-like mouthparts, which contain two fine tubes, into a root then pumping saliva down one tube while sucking the partially digested root sap up the other

  • nymphs generally stay underground for 2-3 years

  • nymphs shed their skin 4 times and during moulting they are unable to breathe because the inner lining of their breathing tube is also moulted

  • when ready to turn into adults the nymph burrows to the surface at night time between late spring and late autumn, climbing as high as they can

  • the changes in sap from the tree roots and temperature of soil deep underground let them know it is time to emerge

  • hundreds of cicada can emerge together in a mass emergence called a pullulation

  • it takes about 1/2 hour for the cicada to break out of its skin during final instar moult 1/2 hour for wings to emerge and by morning the wings and skin hardened so they can fly, feed and sing

  • adult cicada live for about 2 weeks

  • males sing to attract females using buzzing sounds made by tympals (muscles) behind the wing and clapping sounds made from banging wings on the abdomen

  • cicada song is the loudest per body mass in the world and larger species can produce a call in excess of 120 decibels at close range...this approaches the pain threshold of the human ear!

  • songs have 2 parts - an introduction followed by a cueing section and each species has a different song

  • the dinosaurs heard the cicadas' song

  • cicada have 5 eyes (2 large and 3 small), 2 sets of wings and a head, thorax and abdomen

  • cicada use a feeding straw located at the bottom of their neck to firstly pierce tree or shrub bark and then drink the watery sap in the xylem tissue.

Questions I am wondering about and answered by George Gibb (NZ scientist) -

  • do trees/plants benefit from the cicada nymph feeding on their sap? is it a symbiotic relationship? No, parasitic

  • how has the soil in NZ/Aotearoa been altered by the activity of cicada nymphs over 15 million years of activity underground? Little impact as cicada nymphs only tunnel through soil

  • how deep do nymphs burrow underground and how far do they travel during their 2-3 years underground? Remain in one place 40-100cm below ground, attached to plant root, just enlarging their cavity as they moult and grow. They use their excrement to line their burrow.

  • do nymph use their eyes/vision underground? no, they 'understand' the world above from the chemistry of the plant sap, their food.

  • do nymphs have wing buds throughout their life or do these metamorphose during the final instar moult? yes nymphs have wing buds

  • what is a cicada's exoskeleton made of? mostly chiton but amino acids also, more info to follow as this is a fascinating area in science and medicine

  • how many cicada are estimated to be alive in NZ? no answer

  • what feeds on the cicada? what is their role and place in the food chain? mostly birds, kiwi weka etc

  • have habitat changes affected the cicada population and what will climate change mean to future cicada populations? Definitely, just like the community they live in - forests, swamp, grassland


How about this extraordinary artistic endeavour by Hubert Duprat and Caddisfly Larvae!

Trichoptera larva with case, 1980-2000. Material: gold and pearls. Dimension: 0.5 x 1.9 cm. Photographer: Frédéric Delpech. Image courtesy of the artist and Art:Concept gallery, Paris and MONA Museum of Old and New Art.

"Trichoptères, French for the scientific name of the caddisfly, is Duprat’s answer to that question. For years the artist has been collaborating with the tiny insects, providing them small aquariums of gold, turquoise and pearls that the the larvae readily use to construct their temporary homes. Regardless of how creepy crawly you might find the insects, it’s impossible to deny the strange beauty of the final product, tiny gold sculptures held together with silk. Encountering them void of any context, one would assume they were constructed by a jeweler" (sourced from This Is Collosal).

What a celebration of the biological processes of insects! It changes the way human's perceive these little creatures i.e. from revolting to beautiful, and from something of low value to high value. I guess the important question is how this artwork affected the everyday functioning of the larvae and did it interfere in their biological processes - hopefully no animals were harmed in the making of this artwork!

(ii) BIOART - Using Living Tissue as a Medium!!

Bioart is an artmaking practice "where artists work with live tissues, bacteria and living organisms... (and) which involves artists and scientists working together to explore scientific topics through the arts(...) Collaborations in the bioart space require particularly close ties between artist and biologist, mainly because they often require the use of laboratories and scientific apparatus or a deep understanding of biological processes." [ ]

This is a recent art movement, begun in the last two decade. Initial artworks were quite trite, seeming to overlay current aesthetics onto living tissue, while more recent works are embracing an enquiry into the very process of tissue growth and life cycle. This art movement has significant complex ethical considerations.

Image sourced from BioArt Laboratories

BioArt Laboratories was established in 2011 in Eindhoven, Germany and describes its functions "as a gateway to a world of unlimited possibilities where science, nature, technology and creativity go hand in hand. These domains together form the foundation for a sustainable bio-based community which offers ample room for the thinking and creating human. BioArt Laboratories encourages the cross over amongst different domains in order to achieve innovative materials and creative solutions. To achieve this goal, we facilitate the development of international top-talents and trained experts.

In 2000, the University of Western Australia established Symbiotica, an artistic laboratory established by Miranda Grounds, neuroscientist Stuart Bunt and artist Oron Catts. It is "designed as a space for artists to engage with science in various capacities, sharing resources, ideas and exploring new technologies." They offer "an academic program for both undergraduate and postgraduate students where they have hands on experience with life sciences (and) emphasis is placed on developing critical thought, discussing ethical and cultural issues and encouraging cross-disciplinary experimentation in art and science." This sounds very interesting.

Below is some student artwork from Symbiotica (all photos from their website) -

  1. Devon Ward, Nerves in Patterns on a Screen, 2014

  2. Kaori Yamashita, Surroundings Around, 2009

  3. Tarsh Bates, Self-portrait with Candida, 2012

(iv) The Big Draw Dr Gemma Anderson (artist, researcher), professor John Dupré (philosopher of science), and biologists professor James Wakefield and Dr Peter Olson, began this project in 2016 in an effort to "re-introduce drawing into the scientific lab in a new way through practices of care and attention to create a ‘feeling for the organism’. They state, "Instead of copying nature or illustrating science, we aim to draw images that reflect and embody the processual nature of biological life... absorbed by empathy, through the pores in-feeling more than by analysis." (The Big Draw).

Conrad Waddington, (biologist,1957) states, "It is at the deep levels of the human psyche, where these kinds of communication operate, that there is the closest unity between science and art.”

The Big Draw website states, "Processual here means that rather than observing and thinking of biological entities as ‘things’ or ‘objects’ that can be studied in isolation, we consider the multi-dimensional, connected and interrelated nature of living processes that change through time. As philosopher of biology John Dupré writes, ‘coming to terms with new developments in our understanding of biology requires that we take more seriously the ways in which life is dynamic at all levels, and that what we think of as living things - genes, cells, organisms - are more fundamentally processes, maintained in relatively stable conditions by yet further processes’ (Dupré, 2017).

This resonates with the philosophy of New Materialism that I explored last semester, and feels as if I am going full circle. Lots to think about. - a fantastic monthly read.

(v) Kermadec Exhibition In May 2011, a New Zealand initiative took a group of nine artists to the Kermadecs, a vast, 620,000-square- kilometre expanse of ocean and one of the least-disturbed oceanic regions on the planet. "The artists were voyaging to the Kermadecs intent on confirming the known and making their own discoveries—just as scientists do." (Kermadadec Exhibition website).

This is Phil Dadson's recollections - they are a wonderful dialogue of an artist trying to capture the sounds of the vastness and uniqueness of the Kermadec trench


What an extraordinarily privileged session I had with Peter in the Art Studio Block 2, level 2. We collected the photographic equipment Peter had organised with Jane, who stipulated the equipment needed to be booked out and used by Peter during our session -

  • 90mm lens macro

  • 60mm lens macro

  • 50MP Nikon D850 camera

  • extension tube

  • tripod

  • remote control shutter release

  • 5-&-1 gold reflector

Peter felt "the rig is a bit basic but a big step up from what you had close up wise... at 50MP the depth of field will be thinner. Focus stacking is not going to be practical with this rig."

I set up a bench and arranged the cicada and gold leaf ready for photographing (my role was to be composition) while Peter set up the camera lens (90mm) and tripod. It was around 9.30am and the studio faces east so catches the morning sun.

Without a computer to review what had been captured it was a little difficult to be certain everything was in focus (not soft!) but the detail captured seemed stunning. Once the tripod was set up and the remote control connected, Peter allowed me to reposition and focus as necessary under his supervision.

We then moved onto the 60mm lens with extension tube for even more detailed macro images. This is unbelievably complicated - a depth of field that is thinner than a shaft of hair and what this means to composition i.e. what is in focus and what is blurred(softened); the mechanism of focusing in on an object by moving further away (very counter-intuitive); the affects of the curvature of the lens, reflection from the gold leaf, and the affect of the extension tube on the light meter, on the light travelling from the lens to mirror to film, and mirror shutter wobble. I was out of my depth, yet Peter delighted in the minutiae of the cicada shell and worked to capture its detail. We enjoyed moving the cicada to capture its different profiles. While I had envisaged empty space around the object to create a feeling of encasement, Peter filled the whole image with the cicada so that it engulfed the space. There was lots of discussion and mentoring from Peter regarding the science and physics of optics which I struggled to process but having read more since I think I can understand it better. For me it seemed a dance between fields of differing depths rather than light, which is what I had always thought photography was.

We than packed up and had a quick look at some of the images which revealed the exquisite sculptural qualities of the cicada shell. We will meet again to process and print the images.

This process of working with Peter to capture images that I could not have (given a complete lack of technical knowledge) has raised important issues that have caused concern at Massey i.e. "whose work is it?", and "it sets a precedence that is unfair and unsustainable for the department". These are true and I am embarrassed that I have put Peter into such a position all because of my desire to explore the cicada. Artmaking is so entwined with the ego and can become a selfish endeavour and this is something I need to reflect on.

As to whose work it is, my conscience is shouting loudly that it is our work not mine, and even at times it was Peter's work. I have asked Peter if we could both be acknowledged if the work is ever exhibited to which he has said "I’m sure we can come to something we are both happy with."

For me, this willingness and generosity of staff to help realise something so nebulous and ephemeral is deeply touching.

4. ENGAGING WETA WORKSHOP I dropped the cicada exoskeleton off to Weta Workshop for detailed scanning and they emailed back (31/8/20) -

"Our 3D scan technician noted that due to its translucency it would need to be painted with a matte grey colour spray, in order for the surface detail to be read by our scanner. They have also raised a concern that, based on seeing the finer detail of the shell and the capabilities of our scanner, the final quality of the scan may be low. So I’m not sure if that is still workable for you. With this in mind, we have consulted with James Doyle, an expert 3D technician who used to work with us, and he mentioned that in the past he has successfully used photogrammetry for this type of item (it would not require pre-painting in this instance).

We do not have a photogrammetry set up here, however if you are interested we can put you in touch with him directly? Alternatively, our 3D team can provide links for 3D cicada scans that can be purchased online at around NZ$140, if you are not after a scan of this specific cicada in particular? Please let me know if you’d like me to share these with you? "

I replied (1/9/20) - "I wondered if the casting might be a little difficult so thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I'm guessing the 3d scanned images are of nz cicadas rather than their shell which is what I'm after, but it would be good to talk with them about what they have.

I think my first option though would be to investigate photogrammetry. I'm not sure of the price so it may be too expensive? Could you provide me with James Doyle's details please and I could have a chat with him. Then if none of the above work, I will go for your first option of a wee paint touch up and a scan! Thank you".

Sadly, there was no follow up from James Doyle so I decided to abandon this exploration.


bottom of page