I run into people who don’t like museums because they say they prefer nature’s beauty to art. That comment is wrong-headed and shortsighted on so many levels — and I say that as someone who likes nature.
First of all, nature can operate so mysteriously that it needs an artist to express to us the poetic depths of both its complexity and simplicity. But art isn’t an alternative to nature. They’re not separate. Increasingly in modern times, art is nature — or incorporates nature into its very being. That’s certainly what the earthworks movement of the 1960s (which continues today) was all about, as is the better public sculpture.
But in his enchanting piece now on display at Cincinnati Art Museum, Slovakian artist Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny takes it further. Libertiny lets nature, in the form of honeybees, play (almost) as much a role in his art’s creation as he does. The piece, a new acquisition for the museum, is on display in the current Going Dutch: Contemporary Design from Local Collections, a small but sweetly satisfying exhibit of objects associated with an avant-garde Dutch collective called Droog Design. It’s up through April 10.
His piece, “With a Little Help of the Bees Vase,” created in 2006, is more or less exactly what it says. The artist placed thin strips of wax paper, organized into a vase-like three-dimensional shape and embossed with a honeycomb pattern, into a beehive.
The occupants did the rest, depositing enough honey on it to produce a fragilely translucent golden vase. The precarious gorgeousness of it is like a sunset or like the joyfully affirming sight of bees buzzing about a flower garden before they (or you) leave.
And this isn’t some cutesy stunt, either, like having elephants “paint” by putting a brush in their trunk. This is a union of art and nature based on an understanding that art can be nature and vice versa.
This piece is the prototype — the original. The artist (and the bees) went on to make several limited-edition series in several colors.
“Libertiny is not the first artist to work with beeswax as an artistic medium, but he is the first to employ bees as producers of the final piece,” says Amy Dehan, the museum’s associate curator of decorative arts and design. “They start to colonize it and make it like a hive. They start to deposit their beeswax on the inside and outside of this wax armature.
“Depending on whether or not the queen bee is around, it usually takes about a week for vases to be made,” she says. “Bees work a little faster if the queen is there. He just watches it. When he determines it’s done, he removes it from the beehive.”
According to Dehan, the artist says approximately 40,000 bees are involved in creating a piece like this.
Dehan says Libertiny did this project for his senior thesis at a Dutch design academy. She says it’s common for Droog to pick up outstanding school projects. She saw it at a 2008 Museum of Modern Art show called Design and the Elastic Mind, loved it and in 2010 purchased it from the New York store/gallery Moss Design.
“Because it’s made of natural, ephemeral material, we have to be very careful of how we display it, so you’ll always see it under Plexiglas,” Dehan says. “And you’ll probably notice that it’s in a corner of the gallery because it’s sensitive to light and heat. But if you take the Plexiglas off (which you can’t do, by the way, so don’t ask), it still has a wonderful smell of honey.”
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