It has suddenly occurred to me that although I bang on about pleionexia (and have already made several posts about it) I have never yet defined what I mean by it nor posted any finished pictures of the piece. It’s still a work in progress, but here goes.

My artistic research led me to Harry Berger’s Caterpillage. In this elegant and witty book Berger deconstructs the traditional interpretation of insects and other small creatures in seventeenth century paintings that until recently ‘have traditionally been interpreted as agents of decay, underscoring an abiding sense of transience, slow yet unavoidable.’* Instead Berger argues that vanitas iconography is the ‘McGuffin of still life’ and that is a distraction from rather darker meanings in the paintings; below the exotic food, flowers and valuable gewgaws ‘lurk untold narratives about the production and distribution of foodstuffs, about corruption, oppression, and slavery’**

Berger prefers the term rapacitas – he considers the caterpillar a signifier for greed, rapacious appetite and ‘the shadow of pleionexia that falls across the embarrassment of riches in the time of tulip mania.’*  This neatly coined sentence happily brings together the titles of two very successful books on the Dutch seventeenth century which both deal (albeit slightly differently) with the flourishing economy and accompanying desires of the Netherlands during that period.


P1020244Pleionexia (the spelling may be incorrect but no one exactly knows how Ancient Greek translates into English) : the desire to consume or have ‘more’; also the need to be bigger, better, superior than others. It means never being satisfied because one aspires to complete and immortal self-sufficiency, even if that means draining the world of power, wealth, pleasure and being. Pleionexia also has a defensive aspect in a society whose members are aware of competing with each other and taking from another before someone takes from them. It might be described as a model for capitalism. Nowadays we would probably use the word ‘greed’ as a simple definition for this complex concept; but the idea of pleionexia was known in the Ancient world. Plato argued in the Republic (359c) that it is natural for every creature to pursue self-advantage, ‘strive to have more’ (Georgias, 483c) and to ‘overreach others’. (R, 344a).P1020242

My sculpture examines this compulsion which has been known throughout history. I confess (unwillingly) to an unpleasant fascination with this repellent fact of life. The sculpture uses organic/natural imagery arranged in hierarchical structures to examine themes of greed, desire and consumption.


The metaphorical use of hierarchy echoes my fascination with taxonomy – I seek to make flesh the tiered and logical progression of an evolving idea.

* Berger Jr, Harry. Caterpillage, Reflections on Dutch Seventeenth Century Painting. (Fordham University Press 2011) p22. Berger’s critique of Dutch vanitas paintings interprets the image of a caterpillar as one of rapacity, destruction and ‘disordered desire’

**In ‘Still Life and Trade.’ Julie Hochstrasser argues that the paintings leave untold the ‘disturbing truths about the acquisition of the various objects they picture’. These ‘troubling complexities’ (which include Dutch colonialism and slave trade) are described as ‘absent presences’ which are ‘glossed over in these elegant renderings’.

***Berger, Ibid.

About pennimania

Artist, entomologist, grumbler.
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