About to Bee
Alan Bee, Melissa and other considerations
Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt [How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare], was the performance with which Joseph Beuys made his début at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf on 26 November 1965. What matters is that, on that occasion, he smeared his head with honey and gold leaf as though for a sacred unction: ‘Using honey on my head I am naturally doing something that is concerned with thought. The human capacity is not to give honey, but to think – to give ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thought is made living again. Honey is doubtlessly a living substance’.
Honey and wax are not the ordinary fruits of a mechanical transformation of matter: they are products of a knowledge that touches further, inscrutable spheres, they are a production of difference in sameness.
Imprinting, we know, comes from Neun Vorträge über das Wesen der Bienen, translated as Nine Lectures on Bees, by Rudolf Steiner. In the first of these, given at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, on 3 February 1923, the anthroposophist declares: ’When one stands before a hive of bees one should say quite solemnly to oneself: “By way of the bee-hive the whole Cosmos enters man and makes him strong and able”’.
Honey is a fundamental knowledge of nature, and bees – both individually and as an inseparable collectivity, caught up in a cycle of death/life that is an essential measure of time – are the bearers and custodians of that knowledge.
Myth attests to the divinity of bees, their continuous commerce with the divine. The nymph Melissa cares for the infant Zeus whom his mother Rhea has concealed on Mount Ida to save him from the devouring ferocity of Cronus: she feeds him on the honey of the bee Panacris while the goat Amaltheia gives him milk. So it is she, the bee-nymph, who teaches to live on the fruits of nature without impoverishing her and without resorting to killing, to show mankind a superior model of civilisation. Aristaeus, the favourite pupil of the bee-nymphs whose story is told by Virgil in Book IV of the Georgics, will learn from them and will teach men the arts of apiculture and pastoralism.
Melissa is also radically linked with the cult of Ephesian Artemis, the polymastós (many-breasted): the melissai were the priestesses of the temple of Ephesus, where the essenes (drones) were the priests: the queen bee being the goddess herself par excellence, the direct heiress of the ancient cult of the Mother Goddess.
It is probable that Alan Bee did not know all this when he fell in love with bees and their life. Born in South Africa and grown up in continuous contact with nature, from this life he has instinctively and directly learnt the most profound secret: to live in harmony with nature, to know oneself a man by sinking to the innermost fibres of her cycles, her laws, her epiphanies. And when he felt welling up in himself the urge to express, including art, techne and artifice by definition, he dug and discovered the frequencies of a natural way to create authentically.
Alan Bee is quintessentially a ‘man without letters’, he has not contracted the virus of demiurgy, of feeling himself to be the creator and arranger who imposes norms and forms on matter, nor has he put himself in the position of responding to aesthetic models derived from and referring to art. In a book from 1936 entitled, by a sort of destiny, Les abeilles d’Aristée [The Bees of Aristaeus], Wladimir Weidlé reflected on ‘the present destiny of literature and art’ and pronounced: ‘seek art alone and you will not have art’, while those who practised art in the past lived in a world in which ‘one becomes an artist for the very reason that one is a man’, acting in an environment of natural sociability, not of a specialisation eventually become self-referential. How, Weidlé wondered, can one return to that state? With the lesson to be drawn from the biblical episode of Samson (Judges, 14:8-9): after he had turned aside to see the cadaver of a dead lion
Behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.
And he took thereof in his bare hands, and went on eating, and he came to his father and his mother, and he gave them, and they did eat.
So from the cadaver of an artistic discourse degenerated by now into claptrap, a new vital swarm, a new fruitful necessity can emerge.
Alan Bee started out from a simple fact. The community in which art is produced must be united, hard-working, supportive like that of the bees, and so the artist must identify himself with the bee and his work must be singular at the same time, because, following Weidlé, it is ‘a mission entrusted to him alone’, but the source of nourishment from which it springs and which it produces is common to and destined for all, it is the quintessence of a sociability at one with the times and rhythms of nature.
The Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz [Honey Pump in the Workplace] that Beuys constructed and set working in the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel in 1977 was a machine to make honey flow as a continuous circulation of energy, with a symbolic and explanatory value. Alan Bee, on the other hand, has taken the process of painting itself in order to act like and with the bees in a completely natural setting. In the first instance he established the modular cells of the honeycomb, which is in itself a structuring element, a geometry that is not preconceived, initially making it the constituent element on which the image is based, destined to receive diverse contents. At this stage those contents are experienced as substances, as quantities/qualities set down and combined, with a strong degree of natural identification. Later, over the years, colour has increasingly become the protagonist, but understood as a quality laid bare in a relation that is not openly preordained with the others and capable of apparently blind, random and inscrutable tendencies.
In reality they are not indifferent but unforeseeable, and above all they are situated in a very unusual point of view: What are the world and beauty like if you are and think like a bee? Not something that can be explained and defined, but intuited through equivalence and – as Charles Baudelaire would have said – by correspondence: and in fact, the visual organ of the bee is also made of thousands of hexagonal cells. According to Alan Bee, it is a mood fully embodied in colour, in its accumulation of flows and its cellular multiplications, splendidly impure and alive as in nature, the opposite of the iciness and absoluteness of intentional painterly actions.
In the sequences of works generated by the process implemented by Alan Bee the very same radiant idea of nature, organism, work, purity, life and death unfolds that the artist, like the bees, knows beyond all awareness.
Se we see the colour/material as the life of bees, from Genesis, 1977, to Dance, 1978, from The Queen, 1978, to Flying sex, 1999, from Flower, 2015, to Nectar, 2018. And we see other conditions and situations of existence: Purification, 1987, Promised Land, 1992, Celestial, 1992, Quiet, 1998, Sunrise and Sunset, 2000, Freedom, 2005, Dusk, 2011.
Thus his paintings belong to the genre of painting without a shadow of doubt. But they are the fruits of an extraordinary, profoundly motivated way of thinking and acting which cannot be accessed with the usual instruments. For example, it completely deactivates the waiting for a signal that is usually activated in front of a painting and confounds the generally accepted code of taste.
Certainly, it is tempting to refer Alan Bee’s paintings to ways of painting of the recent past and present, but that leads nowhere. In this respect more is to be gained from a reference to the Essais of Michel de Montaigne (I, XXVI):
Bees cull their several sweets from this flower and that blossom, here and there where they find them, but themselves afterwards make the honey, which is all and purely their own, and no more thyme and marjoram: so the several fragments he borrows from others, he will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely his own.
There is no need to disturb the myth of Aristaeus or the famous Dornach lectures of Rudolf Steiner, so fundamental for the work of an artist like Joseph Beuys. Bees have always accompanied human life, embodying a radiant nucleus of values in which our idea of nature, organism, work, purity, life and death is profoundly rooted.
Alan Bee, a South African who grew up in and with nature, has not only chosen to make his own work as a painter a metaphor of the life of bees, but has directly involved them in his processes as models and accomplices, resulting in an expressive oeuvre made of correspondences but above all of a profound self-identification with the hard-working nature of the bees.