On by the bee - Michela Rife

Environmental organizations and advocates often turn to images of large animals, like the World Wildlife Fund’s iconic giant panda or videos of starving polar bears in the melting Arctic, to illustrate our climate crisis. These types of animals are known as “charismatic megafauna,” a term that refers to large animals that humans can easily relate to by projecting our own emotions onto them.

Increasingly, the bee has emerged as a victim of climate change and environmental toxins, as pesticides alter their behaviour and warming climates alter their range. The plight of the bee is emblematic of how difficult it is to understand the scope of climate change. For one thing, there are nearly 20,000 different species of bees, each with their own behaviours and each differently affected by environmental threats. The bumblebee genus (Bombus) includes over 250 species, and given that bumblebees are among the best pollinators, their declining population has dire consequences for food production.

But bees do not have the same visual power as charismatic megafauna. They are relatively small, airborne insects that are fundamentally defined by their community, rather than by their individuality. Bumblebees, the subject of Annette Hegel and Deborah Margo’s work, operate in colonies, and all but the queen die in the late fall. It is difficult to imagine an image of one suffering bee evoking the same environmental angst as a starving polar bear, clinging to life on an ice floe. But there are also real limits to what action charismatic megafauna, as icons of climate suffering, can actually spur.

Hegel and Margo have not attempted to make the bee a symbol; instead, they have created a space for human visitors to imagine the bee’s world. By the bee uses organic materials like beeswax and sedum plants, as well as shifting light and sound recordings of bee activity, to simulate a pollinator’s environment in the midst of the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery. Hegel and Margo have been representing, or rather enlarging, the bee’s world since 2017, when they installed Apidictor Symphony I in a field in rural Maberly, Ontario as part of the Fieldwork project. Human visitors followed a series of paths, cut between amber-coloured fiberglass nectar pods, which mimicked a bumblebee’s flight. Like By the bee, Apidictor Symphony I used recordings to further enhance the human experience of the bee’s world. Hegel and Margo borrowed the title from British radio engineer Eddie Wood’s “apidictor” device, which recorded the sounds of a beehive.

A field full of tall grasses, far from the noise of the city, is an ideal place to encounter immersive artwork that deals with environmental concerns. Perhaps we city dwellers can best imagine ourselves as another creature “in nature.” But this is a false divide. Nature is difficult to define, and it is not only found in rural spaces or in those set aside as “wilderness.” In fact, many thinkers have argued that the colonial tendency to separate and divide the world into categories has fuelled our environmental crises. In 2018, Hegel and Margo moved their work into the heart of Toronto, with Apidictor Symphony II at the Gladstone Hotel’s Grow Op, an annual exhibition of environmental art and design. With By the bee, Hegel and Margo continue to disrupt the idea that nature takes place outside the city, which is fitting given that a recent British study found that bumblebees fare better in urban environments.

Hegel and Margo are part of a long tradition of artists disrupting viewers’ expectations by bringing “nature” into urban galleries. In 1977, for example, American land artist Walter De Maria installed his third Earth Room (197 cubic metres of dirt) in a Manhattan loft. A particularly intriguing precedent for Hegel and Margo’s installations is Agnes Denes’s 1982 Wheatfield – A Confrontation, when the Hungarian-American artist planted and harvested two acres of wheat from a landfill in Manhattan, near Wall Street. Photographs of the work are startling: skyscrapers are not meant to rise above a wheat field grown on discarded land. Denes’s “confrontation” is intentionally jarring, designed to upset our expectations.

By the bee is also jarring. Human visitors are made strange and confronted with a world that is not ours. It is in that discomfort that we can begin to think more expansively. Discomfort is a useful tool for artists who work to prompt ecological action. Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, for example, stimulates our climate anxieties by placing blocks of melting Greenland glaciers in European cities. Hegel and Margo are part of the growing group of ecologically-minded artists raising awareness about environmental issues, yet their installations provoke empathy, not fear. Certainly, the implications of bee death are anxiety-inducing, but Hegel and Margo’s work is rooted in fostering long-term and wide-ranging thinking about climate change and its effects, rather than the short-term jolt experienced when looking at a sad picture of a starving polar bear.

Michaela Rife is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Toronto. She researches and writes about intersections between visual culture and the environment in North America, with a particular interest in public art and land use.