The plight of the world’s bees has become a cause for concern in recent years. Widespread colony collapse disorder has resulted in a drastic reduction in bee populations, which may have dire consequences for the planet.
Ruches fantômes / Ghost Hives, the newest exhibition by artist Valérie Chartrand, uses multiple media to explore disappearing bees with apocalyptic regard.
Chartrand’s strength in various media lends genuine authority to the show. Approaching the issue of bees’ threatened conservation status from multiple visual and physical perspectives treats the problem with a complexity that, say, a collection of paintings might not.
Colony collapse disorder may seem like a narrow subject for an art exhibit, but Chartrand’s approach is a reminder that this issue is an integral crisis for all human life. Among those approaches are Chartrand’s “Colony Portraits,” tiny soft ground etchings and life-size copper sculptures of individual bees.
There’s something unusual and inherently fascinating about examining an art object so physically small. Whereas more ostentatious art can feel like something that “happens” to the viewer, this forces them to be active, to really look at the thing.
This functions as a commentary on our relationship to bees themselves. Bees are ubiquitous and easy to ignore, so we must look closely at them to comprehend the danger they’re in.
These portraits also challenge the way we think of bees in terms of numbers, as an anonymous mass of identical creatures. Every individual sculpture and etching has its own character: little bugs brimming with life and a sense of purpose, if not self-awareness.
Behind all of this can be heard the “Queen Song,” a recording of the queen bee’s call that creates a sort of ambient (forgive the pun) drone music.
The strongest part of the show is “The Last Supper,” a room full of photos, sculptures and other media connecting bees to food. Each photo depicts mounds of dead bees surrounding different fruits and vegetables.
The sculptures feature food objects and bee carcasses housed in wax bowls made “in collaboration with bees.” One of the bowls even features “communion,” wafers of edible paper printed with images of bees, which viewers are free to eat.
By equating bees with the Eucharist, Chartrand is obviously giving bees a holy significance. But the correlation between bees and food also emphasizes how humans’ relationship to bees is largely tied to consumption.
Bees are essential pollinators, but we tend to view their production of honey as their primary usefulness. In Chartrand’s photos, the mounds of dead bees seem to be enveloping and consuming the foods they surround. It’s ironic, then, to consider that none of these foods could survive if bees were to disappear.
Amongst “The Last Supper” is also “Preparation,” a video of Chartrand creating the work by chemically preserving dead bees, rear-projected onto a translucent screen of waxy honeycomb.
While the title “Preparation” has a clear literal definition, its funerary connotations mustn’t be lost on the viewer. It’s a warning that, if humans don’t work to find a solution, Ghost Hives could become a literal funeral for an entire species.
Published in Volume 72, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 26, 2017)