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Beehave: Exhibition concept arrives in Switzerland
Beehave, installation view Kunsthaus Baselland 2018, photo: Gina Folly.

BASEL.- The idea for Beehave emerged and travelled like an agile bee colony going in search of a new place to nest. The exhibition at the Kunsthaus Baselland began to develop around two years ago, thanks to the initiative of Martina Millà, Head of Programmes at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona. As the subject rapidly gathered momentum it soon became clear that the project had to have a site-specific bent in each of its locations. The point of departure in Barcelona is quite different to that in Basel: for some time, urban bee life has been significantly curtailed in Spain and, as a result, beekeeping has been limited or even forbidden. This has not changed to this day. The exhibition in Barcelona, which ran from February to May 2018, thus took on the important task of changing perceptions of a complex subject through contemporary works within the museum as well as beyond in urban space. In Barcelona the list of invited artists was long: Jerónimo Hagerman, Anne Marie Maes, Goig (Pol Esteve and Miquel Mariné) + Max Celar, Philip Wiegard, Joan Miró, Xavi Manzanares and Àlex Muñoz, Marine Hugonnier, Toni Serra (Abu Ali), Luis Fernando Ramírez Celis, Joan Bennàssar, Luis Bisbe, Alfonoso Borragàn, Joana Cera, Gemma Draper, Melliferopolis (Ulla Taipale and Christina Stadlbauer), Vadim de Grainville, Marcos Lutyens, Anna Moreno, Andrés Vial and Pep Vidal. It is to be hoped that the experiences the whole project brought about over many months will bring about a sustainable effect – if not immediately perceptible, then visible over time.

Now the exhibition concept has arrived in Switzerland where it experiences both a continuation and a transformation. In Basel and its surrounds, the situation is entirely different – at least for urban bees. There is talk of more than a thousand privately and publicly established and maintained bee hives in the city. This may sound positive at first, yet apiculture is not a hobby but a skill and an ability that not everyone is able to practise. In professional circles you hear how unskilled keepers, for example, do not recognise a disease in bees or a bee colony, or only do so when it is too late. Affected bees swarm out and infect healthy colonies. And the varroa mite is a major problem here, as it is in many places worldwide.

Yet does the astonishing concentration of urban bee colonies, and do the countless hives and the passionate pursuit of apiculture throughout the Swiss landscape – in the mountains as in the valleys – denote a greater understanding of bees themselves? Or is this an obvious consequence of our proximity to nature? The topic can be traced out more clearly in contemporary art – not merely as a motif, but by posing weighty questions with an effort to create understanding of this fascinating ‘useful insect’. It is striking that this interest is not a new development. In fact, the topic of honeybees and/or their products of honey and wax has been dealt with centrally in many works or series for years, if not centuries. For a long time, artists have almost seismographically signalled the particularities of this form of life and how we deal with it – and that is not even to mention the representation of bees in very early art history.1 Nonetheless it has taken some time for the subject to enter into the mainstream with a broader public and, in the process, to be taken more seriously. Indeed, because of their ongoing endangerment there is currently a boom in reports in the media and on film, including More than Honey and Der Imker (The Beekeeper) from this century, as well as major newspaper coverage such as in the Folio section of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in August 2018. If, however, we consider the ever-diminishing actions brought to bear to help endangered animals and their environment, we should not rest easy.

Might art, or more precisely artists, take on an important task here? Or is the honeybee simply one subject among many? What distinguishes these recent works that deal with honeybees or their production, and what story can be told with the selection made of regional, national and international artists and their artistic discussion of the subject? We believe it is possible to discuss and understand the subject more broadly, and to develop a more nuanced, holistic picture of it, thanks to the coexistence of and cooperation between the exhibitions in Barcelona and Muttenz and the different configurations of artists in them. For the exhibition at the Kunsthaus Baselland we were also particularly interested in how artists found ways of working directly with bees, to engage with them directly or in dialogue and, thus, to trace their rhythms. From this resulted artistic works that, not least, reflected on the social behaviour and how a bee colony lives together in solidarity, and in so doing became relevant to how we coexist. Historical works in turn show how interest in this useful creature and its special role within the ecosystem is not just recent but has been an important subject for some time.

1 There are many examples of bees represented in art-historical iconography. We can think of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s famous drawing The Beekeepers from the 16th century. Much earlier illustrations of bees and humans, such as the cave painting from Bicorp in Spain (Cuevas de la Arana, 10,000–7,000 B.C.), or antique bronze statuettes found as burial objects alongside actual honey may also come to mind. In Switzerland, for example, there is rumoured to have been a bee republic in the city of Chauxde-Fonds in the course of a socialist movement. There is just cause for numerous bee illustrations to be found throughout the city on its coat of arms, and on fountains or reliefs.

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