Beauty in the breakdown: Winnipeg filmmaker finds art in decomposition

Decomposing roadkill, mouldering fruit and rotting vegetables. Where others see "ick," Winnipeg time-lapse filmmaker Joel Penner sees art.

'I think art helps you get at that visceral sense of beauty and sense of wonder,' says Joel Penner

Time-lapse decay filmmaker Joel Penner prepares produce in his West End Winnipeg kitchen for his new rotting project, a film called Wrought. (Tyler Funk)

Decomposing roadkill, mouldering fruit and rotting vegetables.

Where others see "ick," Joel Penner sees art.

The 28-year-old time-lapse filmmaker captures the circle of life, all on specially tricked-out scanners inside the basement of his home in Winnipeg's West End.

He's been making his time-lapse films since about 2012, after inspiration struck in his parent's backyard garden.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to watch these flowers as they decay?'" said Penner, the latest artist featured in CBC's Manitoba Creates series on local artists.

Time-lapse filmmaker Joel Penner captures decomposing fruit, vegetables and roadkill to find beauty where others see "ick." Video by Tyler Funk and Carmen Ponto. 2:57

He has about 20 working scanners, set on timers to capture the decomposition in stages. He uses specially made Plexiglas boxes and plastic sheets, among other setups to encourage decay and contain the mess. He ultimately pieces the images together for his films.

"I think the universe is fascinating and beautiful. I think art helps you get at that visceral sense of beauty and sense of wonder."

National Geographic has featured footage of his work in their docuseries One Strange Rock, which is now streaming on Netflix

His current project is called Wrought, a 15-minute-long film expected to be released this summer that he's producing with his collaborator, Anna Sigrithur.

The growth cycle of mushrooms is captured on specialized scanners for Winnipeg filmmaker Joel Penner's new time-lapse film, Wrought. (Biofilm Productions)

In it, Penner captures the stages of decomposition of animals like badgers, muskrats, pigeons and other roadkill victims. Departed pet snakes, geckos and other lizards whose carcasses have been donated to a local reptile society are also being photographed as flesh-eating beetles feast.

Penner is also snapping scans of rotting raspberries, papaya and other fruit, as well as fermenting foods like beer and kombucha.

This year, he will turn to bees at the University of Manitoba for a film called Hivemind, for which he received a $25,000 Canada Council research grant.

Penner holds earth worms, the workhorses of his new art film Wrought, which captures decay and decomposition. (Tyler Funk )

While his time-lapse films of growth and decay don't have an explicit environmental message, Penner hopes people make a larger connection.

"With my films I want to show the beauty of nature in a way that will make people want to care about protecting it and cherishing it."

See more from the Manitoba Creates series:


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