For my 30th birthday, a friend gave me a metal cicada that he had cast in shibuichi, a traditional Japanese alloy of copper and fine silver. It is impressive as a casting – there is only one feed or sprue into the insect’s body – the molten metal had but one path to travel into the body and then out to the delicate wings. The legs of the cicada are folded up awkwardly underneath it– as if it was sitting cross-legged before it was forever frozen in metal.
Lost wax casting, the process that was employed to transform the cicada into metal, involves equal parts precision and magic. It is one of many processes in jewelry that straddles art and industry. Of the metal resources found on earth, some are mined and enter into a great molten pool that bifurcates into hardware, cookware, a Rodin, the ballast of a ship. The metal has no designs on what form it will inhabit for months, years, centuries, millennia before it is scrapped, re-alloyed, re-cast, reimagined. The metal undergoes a physical transformation during the melt and the pour – moving from solid to liquid to solid again. The cast metal a glowing, cherry red that fades as the metal solidifies and cools. The animus stabilizes, the magic settles, the object remains.
Lost wax is a literal description of what happens: a form is modeled in wax or built out of other combustible materials such as the cicada (many materials beyond wax are suitable for combustion – leaves, small twigs, plastics, legos, food items, fabrics). The original material is lost. The metal casting is its first descendant.
Even the most successful casting bears a mark of process – the place where the molten metal has entered the mold. These entry points are often skillfully disguised but each casting will have had a wax sprue wire (or several depending on the complexity of the form) added to the model before it is encased in a mixture of plaster and silica called investment. The liquid investment is poured around the model while it is encased in a steel cylinder. Once the investment has hardened, the entire mold is heated in a kiln. The wax melts, burns up, is lost. The investment cures. And then the mold is ready for molten metal to be fed into the newly voided interior space.
Many things can go wrong along the way. Casting as a process is more akin to baking – it requires scales and math and knowledge of what the investment should look and feel like when mixing, a slow ramping up of heat in the kiln and a dropping back down to the perfect temperature for whatever metal one is using, a knowledge of how the metal should look when molten (like mercury) in the crucible, how it moves (pulls into a ball that follows the heat of the torch) at what point it is boiling and therefore too hot…it’s an overwhelming list of variables to keep track of. Most jewelers outsource their casting to qualified and calibrated casting houses just as most of the public outsources their baguette baking to bakeries with the proper equipment and knowledge.
Because it is a means to reproduce and copy, casting has often been looked down upon as a technique capable of delivering a conceptual punch. In the case of the cicada, the original object, destined to decompose, is sacrificed for a reproduction that will withstand the ravages of time. The sculptor, Rachel Whiteread whose use of casting draws attention to the spaces we inhabit, has said, “The cast of an object traps it in time, eventually displaying two histories – its own past and the past of the object it replicates. The perfect expression of this is the death mask. It captures all the physical accretions of the human face soon after that face has completed its living existence and before rigor mortis accelerates it towards disintegration. It remains in the world to remind us of the dead as both portrait and memorial.”
Cicadas are long heralded for their grotesque beauty. Young cicadas are called nymphs and they wait underground for seventeen long years to emerge. (And, I know you’ll be surprised by this but 2020 is their year). Cicadas are powerful because of their numbers. En masse they become a plague. They reproduce and lay prolific amounts of eggs on trees. Young trees and vines cannot withstand the burdens of these reproductive efforts and succumb.
The sound of cicadas, recently described by a climate scientist as the sound of heat, is one often attributed to their wings but is actually the sound of the male cicada’s abdomen vibrating in an effort to attract a mate. The cicadas are completing a cycle, one of the longest in the insect world, and soon the nymphs will emerge from the eggs and drop into the ground for another seventeen years.
Adornment and power have been bedfellows for a long time. The power of an object to convey meaning, prestige, station, marital status, good fortune is an essential part of the relationship between person and jewel. And so, perhaps an insect totem is in order, a collar of cicadas, the perfect jewel to keep the apocalypse at arm’s length.