Inter-species communication is art’s new frontier.
All art is collaboration, in one way or another. You work with the people who mixed your paints and made your brushes, or carved your limestone out of a quarry. You collaborate with the inventor of your camera, the builder of your guitar, the coder of your software.
And then sometimes you make art with the help of a bunch of swarming insects.
Aganetha Dyck is a Canadian sculptor and painter who worked in tandem with a hive of bees in her backyard. The insects contribute in numerous ways, from encasing objects with honeycomb to leaving delicate tracks across paintings.
Dyck came to art relatively late in life. She was born in 1937 to Mennonite parents in a tiny farming town north of Winnipeg. After getting married, she began to study crocheting in the 1970s, learning the classic Salish weaving of the Pacific Northwest tribes.
Under the tutelage of George Glenn, she was encouraged to “Work with what you know best and with what you do best.” At the time?—?as a mother of three children?—?that was housework. That spawned Dyck’s first major conceptual piece, where she would wash woolen clothes over and over in an old-school wringer machine until they shrunk as small as they could go, displaying the final products as sculptures. She named the project “SIZES 8–46” and it eventually came to encompass over 1,000 items.
The artist began working with bees in 1988 after paying a visit to an apiary. Dyck was immediately captivated by the way they worked in cooperation. “I realized these amazing beings were sculptors. My imagination ran wild as I became aware that these warm, lovely, and life giving creatures could become my collaborators.”
Dyck will be the first to tell you that she’s not a trained beekeeper?—?she rents the hives from one and works under their supervision, making sure that nothing she does disrupts their natural life cycle. She’s interested in communicating with the bees through art, sending them signals with the work and watching as they interpret and respond to them.
These pieces may look chaotic or overgrown, but Dyck is extremely precise in her methods. Many of the sculptural pieces start with damaged items purchased at second-hand stores. The artist then marks their surfaces with wax, honey, propolis or hand-made honeycomb patterns to give the bees a little direction. By their nature, the insects are compelled to repair and reinforce structures, so they build off of Dyck’s lead in their own way.
She will then take the finished product and sculpt and shave their honeycomb down, sometimes returning it to the hive for more work.
Alongside the sculptures are feeder boards from the hives. These wooden planks are marked with an uncountable number of tracks from bees moving across them, letting viewers come to grips with the sheer amount of energy constantly at work within.
One of the most fascinating things about Dyck’s art is how she yields control to the bees, understanding that they are going to take their own approach to each piece of work. The contrast between two sets of priorities?—?the human world and our aesthetics, and the purely functional hive-making of the bees?—?is deeply compelling.
Unfortunately for Dyck, in 2011 she was diagnosed with a fatal allergy to bee stings. This ironic development made it impossible for her to collaborate with her insect partners, and after a final exhibition of her bee work in 2015, she closed the book on working with them directly.
It’s sad, because bees are in a precarious position right now. Colony collapse disorder is causing hives around the world to fail, and parasitic infections are rapidly decreasing population numbers. Without bees to pollinate them, plants can’t reproduce. That’s a threat to the entire food chain, all the way up. Dyck wants her work to make people think about the bees, and how they work with us even when we don’t realize it.
Aganetha Dyck’s career has been far from typical, and at 79 years old she shows no sign of slowing down. She is trying to develop ways to work with bees from a distance, but even if she doesn’t it’s only a matter of time until she strikes on an artistic method equally fascinating.