Mark Amery writes on two art projects about the honey bee, and its potential to change the way we relate to the world.
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This summer we gathered at a neighbour’s to marvel at a swarm of bees alight on a kowhai tree. Then, unexpectedly this intense mass departed, swirling out over the rooftops. Enthralled we followed, running down the street, only to find that the scouts had sent this community to a hive in our very own garden. Through a nearby window we watched these new sharers of our property settle. Were these the bees that had swarmed from our own hive weeks before, or an entirely new crew? It was impossible to know for sure.
Observing bees increases awareness of the sophistication of the systems by which nature operates, but also its ultimate mystery. There is an intense order to study but so much we can’t explain.
Expressing mystery, whilst making visible the complex structures by which things are bonded is I think essential to great art. We open out systems and may be empowered to explore new paths, to make change.
Bees have long been of interest to artists, notably last century Joseph Beuys who viewed them as a symbol of a way people might live and work together. It influenced his concept of social sculpture, with society as a whole as one great work of art, and the artist as holding the potential to transform it - to be a pollinator.
Yet, bees worldwide are under threat. In recent years there’s been a big rise in the disappearance of bee colonies (a condition labeled Colony Collapse Disorder), the cause of which scientists are still working to understand. New Zealand has also seen the invasion of the pest varroa mite. With a dependence on bees for crop pollination this has significant potential economic impact. Arguably, it is also a clear sign we are dangerously out of balance with our environment.
Two quite different art projects focusing on bees have fascinated of late. In Auckland Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and Taarati Taiaroa have created The Park, an installation of beehives and what they dub "pasture paintings" across the inner city. In Victoria Park, off Beaumont Street, six beehives have been set out in a changing hexagonal planting of bee food. Beautifully laid out, it is of itself an inspiring, thought-provoking site to visit. As accompanying images show this is a painting that continues to change with the seasons. The wildness of the plantings, protecting the bees, and us in turn from them, runs counter to the ornamentation we expect of a park garden. Expectations of interaction within a park are challenged, making us consider our relationship with nature and how we treat it in a city setting.
However, the ambit of the project is far wider. The artists see the space of the artwork as mapped by the flight paths of the bees themselves, and community participation. “Pasture paintings” have been created on roadside berms in the inner city to provide food for the bees, their designed shapes hot-steamed into the grass. Alongside this, people have been encouraged to contribute information and images of their own gardens with high densities of flowering plants that are within a bees’ flight radius of Victoria Park (see the smart website makethepark.info). The pair describe these as ‘pollen hotels’, making a wide swathe of the inner-city a ‘pollen park’. Contributors get a pot of honey for their troubles (Honey Harvest is at Victoria Park 4 April)
Smuts-Kennedy and Taiaroa are making visible the fact that all our individual gardens are connected. We are part of something far greater. In turn they gently make us consider our need to strengthen our own communities through sharing space. As the artists write, “bees know no boundaries.” This is a multifaceted project, which continues to grow and build a community around it.
Meantime on Wellington’s Ghuznee Street, there’s a billboard covered by a seething, but stilled black mass of bees. A photographic image for the city’s ‘worker bees’, the work is outside Bartley and Company gallery and part of established photographic artist Anne Noble’s exhibition Nature Study. Titled ‘In the Dead of Night’, it retains the seductive surface gloss of advertising but its dark visual poetry (so intense it almost seems to secrete a musk) is something else entirely.
At first the title and the life of the image make me think it’s a night shot, the darkness within the hive. Then I realise the operative word in the title is ‘dead’. In contrast to the glow and ooze of honey, deceased bees turn as black and brittle as charcoal. In memory of the fallen, a mass graveyard, a city colony collapsed.
For years Anne Noble’s research and photography focused on our relationship with Antarctica. Now she turns to bees. Both are subjects at the heart of our environmental crisis, our need to redress a balance. Both visually explore forms and ideas on the edge of our perception and understanding, bringing art and science into closer relationship.
When I view Noble’s work a hush always seems to descend. States of Grace was the apt title of a survey exhibition 13 years ago. There is a care and gentleness given to what the world provides the camera. In stilling and quietening the world - amongst the barrage of image noise out there - with her treatment of surface Noble’s work can touch ethereality, a mystery beyond. Pushing the way we see things in new ways, her work asks us in turn to reconsider how we view our relationship with the world.
A beekeeper herself, in Nature Study Noble challenges perceptions of what a photographic artist looks at, with close up photographs of bee anatomy using scientific specimen slides, a homemade microscope and electronic scanning microscopes. The care of the scientist meets that of the artist. Attuned to the visual poetic potential of the material Noble touches the mystery.
Most dramatic is a black framed, ghostly yet sharply detailed scan of a dead bee, ‘Dead Bee Portrait #3’. To the fore in the light are the strong yet ragged wings, still crackling with energy, the worn body of solo worker bee elevated to heroic, iconic status. In another series, hovering delicately in deep white frames old slides of bee wings have been printed as tintypes onto aluminium plates. The emulsion sees their dark skeletal forms float in a painterly fluid, the rich cracked and speckled surfaces providing a rich patina of time, through which the history of photography and nature study dance.
These and the portrait are exquisite meditations, but they don’t move me. What does is a series of large colour images, ‘Eidolon’ where the translucent wings of bees overlap in movement, glistening rainbow pearl and blurring in and out of abstraction. Rather than trapped in time as specimens, these wings are in movement in the environment, alive to the imagination.
Surreally, I imagine the artist in her garden, her head joyously in a swarm. They make me feel airborne, enfolded within an interior space looking out to the blue beyond. An Eidolon is a spirit image, and these phantom wings wrap around, placing us in a prism through which we might appreciate more closely the delicate mystery of the world we are a part of.