The Confederation Centre Art Gallery’s current exhibition, “Guest Workers,” employs an unusual strategy in its presentation of the work of Governor General’s Award–winning artist Aganetha Dyck. Displayed alongside the artist’s characteristic hybrid sculptures, drawings, paintings and found objects that have been transformed with the natural architectures of honeycomb, the exhibition also features a functional beehive. Bringing the bees’ transformative process into the gallery, Dyck has constructed a hive connected to the outside world via a Plexiglas tube. Inside the hive, and visible to viewers, is a lobster trap that the bees will cover in honeycomb and wax over the course of the installation.
Although her collaborative work with bees has become a hallmark of her practice, in the past year Dyck has developed a serious allergy to the honeybee sting and will no longer be able to work in the apiary. In this interview with Canadian Art editorial resident Tess Edmonson, Dyck reflects on this 20-year collaboration in its final chapter.
Tess Edmonson: I’m curious about the process of setting up a beehive in the gallery space. What were the technical considerations you had to address?
Aganetha Dyck: The technical operation was completed by Ben Kinder at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, and by Geoffrey Paynter, a beekeeper who lives in Charlottetown. They constructed an amazing hive within the gallery that is completely mobile. It has a long Plexiglas tube to the outside of the gallery and that leads to a tiny little waterfall, so the bees have water. And there are many, many plants that the bees can access.
I’ve worked with honeybees for twenty years and this must be the tenth gallery or museum in which I’ve created this sort of hive. So it’s not the first time this has happened, but it’s a very unique way of constructing it.
TE: How did you start working with honeybees, and when did you decide to bring them into the gallery?
AD: I started working with honeybees 20 years ago when I realized the honeybees were such incredible creators of space. Their construction is incredibly strong. I began researching honeybees and became interested in how important they are to the universe. I asked myself, “If these creatures were to disappear from earth, what would be the ramifications to all living beings?”
I began to research the architecture of the honeybees’ cell formation, and how architects over time have used honeycomb to construct buildings and to decorate them, mainly for their strength and beauty.
TE: You’ve decided to use a lobster trap as the object inside the hive that the honeybees will build their honeycomb on. How did that choice come about?
AD: Originally I had suggested a model of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery be placed into this hive because I thought that they would inhabit it and create this amazing, alive building, which the Centre really is. The people there are really, truly wonderful to work with. It became too prohibitive for the gallery to construct the model. So I left it up to [curator] Pan Wendt and the people there to choose an object from nature. Well, it’s not actually from nature: it’s a man-made lobster trap. But lobsters are also in danger of extinction, or certainly of disappearing for a time. So I think that’s why it was chosen and that’s why I agreed to it.
TE: Do you see your work addressing environmental issues?
AD: I guess so. I guess I see it putting forth environment issues. I’m in contact with many scientists to discuss these kinds of issues, as well as with artists who are working with honeybees all over the world. I’m not the first one to work with bees, however; Joseph Beuys, Mark Thompson—there are many, many artists who have worked with honeybees.
TE: What is the concept behind the exhibition’s title, “Guest Workers”?
AD: The curator and I went back and forth about titles, and finally he came up with “Guest Workers,” because that’s what the bees are.
TE: What other work is on display at the Centre?
AD: Well it’s a history of my working with honeybees. There are a lot of drawings that the bees have altered, a little bit of painting and figurines that I found in second-hand or antique stores that were broken and which the bees have mended.
TE: What is the difference for you between having honeybees add to work that you’ve created, such as drawings or paintings, and the bees transforming objects that you’ve found?
AD: Mainly I find it interesting that honeybees will make their home anywhere. It was fascinating to see how interested they were in different shapes that were placed in the hive. Basically, the honeybees are making honey, gathering nectar, pollen and propolis. An apiary filled with hives is an artificial place for the honeybees, and I find that really interesting because they’re making honey for you and me, right? They’re making wax. It’s an incredibly warm place; the scent is beautiful; the sound is just stunning, from very calm to just screeching. It’s fascinated me from the day I opened a hive; it’s absolutely the most incredible place.
TE: Where do you see your work going in the future?
AD: Well, just this year I’ve become allergic to the honeybee sting.
TE: Have you been stung many times?
AD: Several times a season, usually because I’m not wearing my gloves or something else careless, so this is my last year of working with the bees. I’m just completing a collaboration with Canadian photographer William Eakin, but this will be my last year working in the apiary. That doesn’t mean I’m going to leave the honeybees and my relationship with them at a distance. It was a long relationship, and it continues, but in a different way.