Exquisite Creatures | The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh 

Through Mar. 20, 2022, $5-$10  

A panel at the entrance to Exquisite Creatures, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ newest special exhibit, defines the term “biophilia” as “an instinctive sense of kinship with the rest of the living, breathing, world.” Literally translated, the word simply means “love of life”—and Christopher Marley, the acclaimed artist, naturalist, and author behind the stunning three-dimensional exhibit, clearly has much to spare.

An Oregon-based creator whose work has been shown in dozens of museums and retail shops worldwide, Marley utilizes preserved animal specimens (all of which were reclaimed, meaning that they died of natural or incidental causes and were not killed for the purpose of his art) to create intricate, dazzling patterns.

You’ll be able to see, for instance, a clock-shaped display made up of luminescent butterflies or a towering spiral consisting of multisized turtles. While some of the creatures featured in the exhibit’s 350 displays are familiar, if still eye-catching, many more are little known, with some rare specimens obtained from places as far as Tanzania and Cambodia.

Through this extensive variety, Exquisite Creatures invites its viewers to see the natural world with a new, deeper understanding—even those who may not otherwise enjoy spending an afternoon surrounded by bugs, spiders, and snakes.

“The exhibition as a whole creates a universal entrée to unfamiliar elements of the natural world that has power to seduce even the most hesitant or squeamish visitor,” Marley said in press materials for the exhibit.

The fact that Exquisite Creatures, which opened on October 16, is the first special exhibition at the museum in three years makes visiting the exhibit even more of an affecting experience.

Additionally, in a first for the museum, all exhibition panels are fully translated into Spanish, to ensure that many non-English-speaking visitors can fully appreciate all the displays have to offer.

And appreciate they will. In Marley’s talented hands, animals of all forms take on entirely new lives, their bodies positioned to create vivid, mesmerizing mosaic displays. In one corner of the exhibit, hundreds of brightly hued beetles create a kaleidoscopic circle that will leave you marveling over their diversity; in another, individual snakes sit in framed black squares, their poses, from afar, making them appear more like elaborate necklaces than fearsome creatures.

Which is exactly Marley’s point.

“It goes against our instincts to be disdainful of the natural world or to wish it harm, just as it goes against our nature to disdain ourselves and wish ourselves harm,” he wrote in an exhibit panel. “The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return.”

As eye-catching as Marley’s work is, the clear driving force behind Exquisite Creatures isn’t simply to seduce its viewers but also to move them. With their brilliant colors, unexpected forms, and appreciation for life forms of every shape, size, and species, the artworks practically demand an intimate connection with their audience.

And coming at a time when human beings’ capacity to care for both one another and the world around us is being put to the test more than ever before, the exhibit’s focus on connection and empathy feels especially affecting.

“Art’s purpose is to heighten our aesthetic sensibilities, to sharpen our ability to experience beauty, to empathize with those life systems that we come into contact with, to derive pleasure or stimulation from our interaction with arranged elements, either in whole or part,” Marley wrote in his artist’s statement. “How does nature differ? We dance with it and within it. The aesthetics of nature are the rhyme we move to.”

This feels right: to view Exquisite Creatures is to dance with it, to see oneself not as an individual observer but as part of a greater and ever-changing natural world filled with more exquisite diversity than we could ever imagine.

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