Long banned in Spanish cities, bees are reappearing in Barcelona with the exhibition “Beehave” at the Joan Miró Foundation and in various spots around the Catalan capital.
It is a little-known fact that the practice of beekeeping is actually forbidden in all Spanish cities. Under the Farm Labour act of 1975, beekeeping is placed in the category of animal husbandry. In an attempt by the then Francoist regime to “modernize” Spain, the act also banned the famous vaquerías—inner-city milk shops that actually had a cow behind them producing fresh milk. This was reinforced under a royal decree in 2002, which stated that no beehive should be kept within 400 meters of a town. It remains law today. Urban beekeeping, popular in many Western cities (Paris, Berlin, London, New York…), is almost impossible to practice in Spain.
In Beehave, an exhibition featuring multiple works by artists, scientists and bee research labs, curator Martina Milla had to undertake considerable bureaucracy to install a working beehive on the roof of the Joan Miró Foundation building. She speaks about the “rising awareness that honey bees, those extraordinary pollinators, as scarecely known as they are feared, are suffering a severe survival crisis”. Her exhibition continues this month outside the museum with a series of urban interventions that reflect this official casting-out of the city of bees and beekeeping.
As a curator, I’ve also had an interesting bee experience, which curiously reflects on Brexit. In 1990 I presented the American artist Mark Thompson, whose famous film from the 1970s shows him walking slowly and shockingly with a swarm of bees entirely covering his head. As a hands-on curator, my job was to drive to Germany to bring his entire beehive, complete with wax and dead (I hoped) bees to the UK in my car, for exhibitions in London, Newcastle and Glasgow. Britain had recently (finally!) entered the single market, a joy to all those of us working in the arts in the UK who had to fill out endless carnet forms and provide import-export forms with financial guarantees for obscure artworks and equipment every time we wanted to cross the Channel. Although no forms were now needed, I nevertheless chose to drive the hive through the Red channel, as I was sure I would be stopped by customs for having an enormous honey-dripping construction barely fitting in the rear of the car. “What is it?” asked the officer. Me: “Well, it is a beehive but also an art installation. Do you want to inspect it?” Officer: “Just get that thing out of here! I don’t want to get stung.”
Fear of bees is an interesting first response to bees, as beekeepers attest that swarms of bees can sense the emotions of the humans near to them. Mark Thompson, who has devoted his artistic life to bees and beekeeping, speaks about his seminal work in this interview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in conversation with Howard Fried of New Observations: “As a sculptor, the Immersion film was a way for me to visually explore the unique spatial qualities of the honeybees in flight—this curiously fundamental particle space and energy field created when thousands of bees are mingling in the sky. The most visually striking moments in the film occur when my head is immersed in this particle space and the swarm of some 40,000 honeybees slowly covers my contours, obscuring my face in about 50 minutes—the film ends in a still life.”
Mark Thompson in conversation with critic David Pagel (2009):
The French artist Luce Moreau, whom Makery covered here, has followed on from Mark Thompson in the contemporary context, sculpting with bees, constructing palaces out of beeswax in a commentary on social utopias.
The exhibition in Barcelona skillfully combines artistic and scientific points of view. For example, Anne Marie Maes with the Brussels-based Urban Bee lab has developed a series of “smart” hives across the city, “creating experimental set-ups with engineers and scientists, using sustainable beehives that have been augmented with sensors and sensory processing algorithms to analyze the state of the colony, the quality of pollen and propolis and the behavior of the bees”. These “intelligent beehives” are progressively being linked in a European-wide network, and the data is available online here.
The work on the roof by Alex Muñoz and Xavi Manazares also connects to a remote bee-monitoring website, Eixams, where one can see livestreams of bees.
The Melliferopolis group (Christina Stadlbauer and Ulla Taipale) in Homage to Pomona, point out that an estimated three-quarters of the production of edible fruits and vegetables of the world are in danger of extinction, because of the loss of the pollinating insects: “Now! The vanishing pollinators force us, humans, to hand-pollinate the last remaining flowering crops. Almonds are blossoming and must be pollinated, they are priceless! Wearing gloves and using brushes, we follow the age-old rituals of insects, while remembering the delicious taste of fresh cherries…”
Ulla Taipale also extends this work outside the gallery in A Walk on the Other Side in Poblenou Cemetery. According to classical mythology, bees have the ability to travel between the realms of the living and the dead. A smartphone app allows participants to follow this itinerary and listen to excerpts of writings from different periods that contain references to these insects.
Many of these projects can be seen out in the city as interventions. For example, Joan Bennàssar’s video Miel Loca (mad honey) shows the hallucinations of a Mexican beekeeper after having ingested toxic honey.
“Miel loca”, Joan Bennàssar:
“In Mexico, bees produce honey that is poisonous due to its high content of agricultural chemicals. In these kaleidoscopic hallucinations, we see everything from the transformation of plastic materials used in experimental architecture in the 1950s to the phantasmagoria of present-day agricultural chemistry.”
Moving between these many interventions in a city where beekeeping is banned, one recalls the words of 13th century Italian thinker Brunetto Latini on honeybees: “Even though, each (honeybee) strives to do its best according to its abilities, nevertheless there is no envy among them and no hatred… They sting with their stinger very hard, but they harm no-one except to get revenge or for fear someone might take their honey from them.”
Full list of events and installations in “Beehave”, through June 17 in Barcelona