World Bee Day 2021 has rekindled the spotlight on bees and their importance in the global ecosystem. Angelina Jolie and the Women for Bees project are just the latest examples of how the streets of bees and art can meet.
the World Bee Day 2021 it has rekindled the spotlight on bees and their importance in the terrestrial ecosystem. Angelina Jolie, UNESCO ambassador, participated in the project Women for Bees, an initiative that helps promote entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment along with the conservation of biodiversity. By 2025, the program aims to build 2,500 hives in 25 UNESCO biosphere reserves, fostering the growth of 125 million bees.
To do all this, the actress posed for the photographer and beekeeper of the National Geographic Dan Winters covered with a swarm of bees. To inspire Winters, a portrait made by Richard Avedon in 1981, The beekeeper, just to stay on topic.
But Winters-Jolie’s performance is not an isolated case in the contemporary art scene, which has many times turned the spotlight on the fate of these precious pollinating insects and the Earth ecosystem in this beginning of the Anthropocene – insects that were part of the art world well before angelina Jolie covered in bees and with wide eyes.
THE BEES FROM THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS TO BERNINI
For the ancients, bees were a symbol of rebirth: linked to spring, they disappeared in the winter months, so their presence was a symbol of renewal. For the ancient Egyptians the bee was compared to the soul and could bring life back into a body if it entered the mouth (it was one of the reasons why the latter was sealed). In Ancient Egypt they were authentic deities, born from the tears of Ra, the god of the Sun, who fell to Earth when the god wept. They were related to the Sun, in fact, and to the cultivation of the land, so they were the symbol of Upper Egypt. In hieroglyphics they are also represented as a wheel with six spokes, the symbol of the Sun.
In the France of the Sun King bees were a symbol of nobility and purity and still are today. The Greeks linked them to Artemis, goddess of hunting and gathering; they were priestly animals, they avoided all impurities and lived only on the scent of the Sun, and the fruit of their tireless efforts was the basis of ambrosia, divine nectar very pleasing even to the Celts.
Ra’s tears have always been part of Western iconography: they are often represented in the medieval bestiary, but with unrealistic traits. In 1514 Albrecht Dürer he draws with his unmistakable features a little Cupid who escapes from a swarm of bees from which he tried to steal honey, under the amused gaze of Venus. In Rome the BerniniIn Fountain of the bees (1644), sculpts three bees that drink from an open shell.
FROM LAND ART TO WORKS OF ART MADE IN THE HIVES
Today a work closer to contemporary sensibility and global ecological demands is The Hive (2016) by Wolfgang Buttress. It is a giant metal hive equipped with over 1,000 LEDs that come to life based on the activity of the nearby hives in which sensors have been installed. A work of visual and sound Land Art able to emit violin and cello sounds based on the activity of the nearby hives: in practice, bright SOS on the state of health of insects.
Much smaller by extension, but with the same degree of meticulousness, it is Requiem for Insects (2019) by The Australian Rosie Armstrong. Made of wood, cut to the laser and hand-painted, Armstrong’s insects, among which there are many honey bees, are native Australian species close to extinction.
In the case of Ladislav Hanka Island, whose works are made by bees and for bees, we are witnessing a progressive process of rapprochement between the artist and this special social insect, which brings art into the hives. Born in 1952 in Iowa, Hanka is a master wood engraver and expert in the technique of etching. When he became a beekeeper, he understood that he had to collaborate with the bees to create his works: he therefore made them inside the hives. “In this way the engravings live a second life where the bees take over collaborating in the creative process. […] There is an undeniable intelligence at work in the hive; you learn to respect it and to take care of these small creatures so evolved and this spurs me to be close to all the bees in difficulty, not only here but all over the world“.
BEE ART: FROM READY-MADE TO THE PERFORMATIVE ART OF BEES-SCULPTORS
Aganetha Dyck takes collaboration with bees to the next level. Canadian, born in 1937, interested in environmental issues since the parents of the current Gen Y activists were not yet born, she introduces objects of common use into the hives and leaves them there for years: ready-made meets beekeeping. The artist’s last exhibition in 2014 is Honeybee Alteration and reflects on a future without bees.
Ren Ri is Chinese and defines himself as “beekeeper-artist“, in that order. He created polygonal Plexiglas structures inside which he put queen bees. By changing the inclination of the structures, it pushed the worker bees to adapt to the new environment. the result? Geometric structures that look like fractals but that are created by bees and their environmental adaptation: a true performative work where the contribution of man is at the minimum terms, since the work is all of the “bees-sculptors“.
Similar to Ri’s work, but on a much larger scale, it is that of the Slovak artist Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny, which with the series Made by bees he brought to Venice, on the occasion of the Biennale Architettura 2021, his works created in collaboration with the bees. The process is similar to that of Ri: a metal structure around which queens are placed, which gradually becomes the framework for the cells thanks to the constant work of 60 thousand bees, which give life to the structure designed by the artist, who then finishes everything by leveling the beeswax. The themes are those of cohesion between man and the environment and environmental protection, communicated through the representation of everyday objects, made of wax by bees-sculptors.
The last work, Eternity, is the result of a patient work that lasted two years and it is no coincidence that it represents the bust of Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, who with her husband introduced the cult of the only god Aton, the solar disk, of which the bees were hemixaries. A revolution, the one that the artist envisages with the series Made by bees: transform our relationship with these precious little insects, for us, for those who will come, for the planet and also for art.
– Luca Rossi