In My Head I Carry My Own Zoo: the art of John Digby’s collages

Karen Holmberg in Independent:

A petition appears in my inbox without salutation, preamble, or signature:

Each year millions of moths are painfully deprived of their testicles for the making of MOTH BALLS…

I recall the moment weeks before in John Digby’s studio when I’d asked why I had found so many collages in the shape of butterflies, but none in the shape of moths.

John-digbyMy twelve-year-old daughter dissolves in helpless hilarity when I read the message aloud to her; she begs to hear it again and again. It’s a silly joke, of course. But there’s something serious to it as well. Tomfoolery fuels the engine of Digby’s artistic imagination; puns, literalising, and other forms of harmless absurdity create the spark of astonishment and surprise necessary to transform our perception of the world – and decenter us from its midst. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who defined the human being as “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond”, Digby would describe the human being as (at best) a breathing motley of the silly and refined, the perishable and the permanent.

His art reflects this variousness. The collages, made from engraved illustrations found in damaged 19th century books, preserve what is essentially fragile, using archival practices to arrest deterioration. His art extends the life of these fragments by tugging them back into the modern moment and re-illuminating their beauty. Often, his art fuses the seemingly incompatible – the grotesque and the delicate, the violent and the peaceable, the whimsical and the serious, the earthy and the ethereal – yet he always achieves a luminous integrity. He embeds yoked oxen like organs within a fish’s abdomen; a Berber flute player crouches in the dust opposite a goat who perches atop towers of sticks, the figures perfectly balanced in the scale of a butterfly’s wings. Somehow, these figures speak to each other, belong to each other, though they may well have been transplanted from entirely different books. When I asked him about his foam core sculptures (antennal contraptions gathering dust on top of a bookshelf, inspired by a local cable program on aliens “listening in”) or the collage poems he writes (drawing the language from a select group of books he’s kept on his drafting table for years) he chuckles at himself – it’s all jokes, you see – but this doesn’t cancel out their beauty or their seriousness. Somehow Digby interfuses radically different qualities into his art to generate a miraculous levity, an insistent thisness.

Paradox defines the process itself. The animal collages – usually only a few inches square – magnify by miniaturising.

More here.