Friday, 14 October 2011

Bee Worship - a new cultural obsession?

John Stark's In Times of Exactness and Uncertainty

The zeitgeist has a hum to it: bees are everywhere. In my previous post I wrote about John Stark’s new exhibition Apiculture, in which his distinctive oil landscapes have become populated by enigmatic bee-keepers and brightly coloured hives. My interpretation of the images was based on the idea of a kind of bee worship, but this seems to be emerging in reality as much as in Stark’s quasi-mythical worlds. Urban beekeeping is almost as trendy as stitch ‘n’ bitch in London.  We’ve had national honey bee day, talks about bees, honey tasting events, not to mention recent books about bees…

Back to art, though. In Tessa Farmer’s work bees sometimes appear, as slaves or accomplices to marauding and sinister fairies, an idea which moves far away from the notion of bees as kindly cooperators working tirelessly to produce golden goodness. It is also a refreshing change from the traditional symbols of the hive, and the romanticisation of bees dancing and visiting blossoms rather like cutesy Victorian flower fairies.

Of course, part of the current interest in bees is driven by anxiety about their declining populations in Britain; as the guilty party in this, humans are being encouraged to nurture bees, providing them with pollen-rich gardens and city pads. It is not surprising that, where science and art meet, bees should pop up, and low and behold they have – specifically in Bee Box, a piece by artist-scientist Ann Brodie currently installed at Bishops Square in Spitalfields, East London.

Anne Brodie's Bee Box, image courtesy of C-Lab
The box has been curated by C-Lab and sponsored by EPAC in a project to ‘exhibit art-science artworks’ across Europe. All well and good, and a trope that is appearing in many art forms, including literature, at the moment.

But as a piece of art, I don’t quite know what to make of the Bee Box. Inside the perspex casing real bees are suspended from thin lines in a vaguely swarm-like arrangement. What looks like a fan is fitted into a hole in the base, promising wind and movement, but it has not been switched on whenever I have visited and I wonder whether the stillness and inactive fan are deliberate elements of the piece. Of course the bees are dead, but they also look it – light, empty, dulled, and thus not at all evocative of a living swarm, heaving this way and that, laden with pollen or rage or both, and buzzing us out of their busy way.

The box does have some allure in the evening when it is illuminated in a darkening space outside the market, but the title 'Bee Box' teased my imagination and I admit I felt disappointed to see the collection of sparse, dried out bodies. Perhaps this too is what the artist intended; she describes it as ‘a swarm of bees going nowhere, pollinating nothing.’ Yet there is no poignancy, somehow. The audience cannot get close to the creatures as we can with Tessa Farmer’s installations. As the photographs reveal it is difficult to get a really arresting, interesting view of the contents of the box, dwarfed as they are by office buildings and a collection of oversized white rabbit sculptures on the pavement beside them.

The installation "relates to increasing tensions in both [human and bee] societies and questions what happens when the harmony is brought under threat." Perhaps with that fan turned on, the bee-lines tightening and entangling as the soulless bodies sail through the air, this piece would evoke tension and the loss of harmony. For now, the tensions in today’s society are more clearly expressed in the fraught faces of the office workers that scurry past the bees, oblivious.

1 comment:

  1. I have a deep suspicion of these installations, taking (broadly) the view that they are emperors new clothes unless they can show me otherwise. There are exceptions of course, but very few are moving or come near to the lofty claims of the associated blurb. On the other hand, go to Tate Britain on a quiet day and look at the Francis Bacon painting, or the Gainsborough's: no contest.