For millennia, those who see God’s handiwork in nature have been drawn to the honeybee as a particularly clear indication that the world is a carefully ordered system. As the French essayist Montaigne once asked in a chapter called “Man Is No Better Than the Animals,” “Is there a society regulated with more order, diversified into more charges and functions, and more consistently maintained, than that of honeybees? Can we imagine so orderly an arrangement of actions and occupations as this to be conducted without reason and foresight?”
Yet today, in a world where bees are for the first time in human history under serious threat as a species, these implicit reassurances of divine order are, like the beehives themselves, prone to unexpected and catastrophic collapse. Pesticides, parasitic mites, industrial agriculture, and other malign influences to be determined have conspired to put honeybees, which are responsible for pollinating a significant percentage of all plant life on Earth, onto an endangered species early-warning alert.
In Swarm: A Collaboration with Bees, a new art show at Lotusland, an international group of artists have gathered to address this crisis of the honeybees with their work; in the process, they have produced one of the year’s most unexpected and exciting collaborations. Through Swarm, Lotusland provides a thrilling new visitor experience that delivers a powerful and urgent message: Humans have much in common with honeybees, and if large numbers of these bees continue to die off, so shall we.
Bees Here Now
A sign outside of Lotusland’s Pavilion, where Swarm is located, notes that bees are “docile when Swarming.” While intended to inform and disarm visitors who may fear actual bees, these words could as easily be an ironic description of the artwork that awaits them within. The artists in the show — Stephanie Wilde, Penelope Stewart, Rose-Lynn Fisher, Maria Rendon, Theresa Carter, Keith Puccinelli, Cynthia James, Anna Vaughan, Casey Lurie, Ed Inks, Ethan Turpin, and Jonathan Smith — Swarm very impressively, but what they achieve together, while warm and welcoming, is hardly tame or submissive.
For example, Boise artist Stephanie Wilde comes to the subject of honeybees by way of a longstanding commitment to making art about epidemics. For 20 years, she has explored the global impact of AIDS through painting. When Wilde heard about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious blight that has already wiped out a significant percentage of the Western honeybee population, she knew that she had found another mortal threat to which she could apply her multifaceted and subtly subversive techniques. Her delicately beautiful paintings seem decorative at first, but underneath their gorgeous surfaces beats the heart of an activist. “The work has to be aesthetically pleasing because the subject is so hard emotionally,” Wilde told me at the Swarm opening. “That’s the lesson I learned from working on AIDS.”
Next door, in the middle section of the show, Canadian artist Penelope Stewart has created an incredible installation entirely out of beeswax — nearly 1,000 pounds of it. Curator Nancy Gifford discovered Stewart’s work when her molded beeswax environments were displayed in a series of shows in France; Buffalo, New York; and Toronto. Gifford couldn’t offer Stewart, a well-established mid-career artist, the kind of support she was used to from such institutions as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, but she did have a secret weapon in her arsenal of persuasion: Lotusland itself. “I knew we were not going to be able to make this appealing to her strictly on the basis of the fee, but I thought if we could just fly her down here and set her up in the house, she might go for it,” said Gifford. “I don’t think she was here for more than a few hours when she declared, ‘I’m in.’” Stewart slept in Madame Walska’s bed, read her biography, walked the grounds, and generally fell in love with the place.
Her fragrant and sensual beeswax room was constructed in phases. First, Stewart took photos of everything at Lotusland that delighted her, from lotus pads, cacti, and succulents to tiles and even doorknobs. Then she went home to Toronto, where she created the silicone molds required to cast the individual elements. Finally, she came back to Lotusland for the installation, where she hovered over vats of molten beeswax for three weeks in order to create the intricately patterned sculptural walls that line the middle room of the Pavilion now.
Inside the Hive
Behind a curtain at the exit of the beeswax room, two of the show’s most potent elements lie in wait. On the walls, Gifford has hung a series of Rose-Lynn Fisher’s electron-microscope photos of bees. These otherworldly black-and-white images show bees in all their furry glory, and, while astonishing in their own right, here they serve as a prelude to an amazing, immersive experience: the feeling of being part of the hive. Through a variety of media — video projections, double-sided LCD screens, incredible close-up footage of bees in the hive, mirrors, and good old-fashioned carpentry — Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith’s “Bee Cell” installation gives visitors an idea of what it must feel like to be a bee.
As I stood inside and alongside the “Bee Cell” with many different people over the course of two visits to Swarm, I came to the conclusion that not only was this the coolest installation I had experienced in a long time, but it was also the coolest location for an installation. It’s one thing to have a great immersive contemporary art experience in a museum, or at an art fair, and quite another to emerge, after several minutes of humming, buzzing, wiggling communion with one’s inner bee, into the boudoir of Madame Ganna Walska. The queen of this hive may be dead, but her spirit lives on in Swarm.
The Flight of the Lotus Bee
Although the allure of Lotusland stems from many sources — the beauty and diversity of nature, the talents and knowledge of a whole cast of gardeners, landscape architects, artists, and masons, and the exquisite climate and adjacencies of its site — most of all, what Lotusland represents is the charisma, imagination, and determination of its creator, Madame Walska. Unlike such imperialist anthology gardens as the Huntington, there’s no particular political agenda to Lotusland, and there’s only ever been one law: What Madame wants, Madame gets.
Given this legacy, it goes without saying that anyone who considers tampering with Lotusland had better think long and hard before altering even a single aspect of its creator’s comprehensive vision. After all, what could one possibly add to a place that’s already on some level defined by one woman’s very specific form of excess? Yet slowly, over the past three years, a small team of people in and outside of the organization has been doing just that. By establishing this new art program, which could conceivably one day become as distinctive a feature of the place as the Blue Garden or the cycads, Executive Director Gwen Stauffer and guest curator Gifford have combined a sharp understanding of Lotusland today — complete with its opinionated board of directors and Montecito’s highly restrictive conditional-use permits — and an equally intuitive understanding of Madame’s idiosyncratic original spirit and intention. With Swarm, Lotusland has taken bold flight toward its future.
Swarm: A Collaboration with Bees shows through Saturday, May 4, at Ganna Walska Lotusland. Call 969-9990 or visit lotusland.org.