Kath Fries / PhD candidate, Sydney College of the Arts
Materiality as process
My interest in New Materialism discourses relate to my research and art practice exploring how direct tactile encounters with our surroundings can conjure embodied engagements with the vital materiality of existence. One of my current projects, Divest, involves working with the sensory material of beeswax. Changing from brittle to malleable and opaque to translucent – with visible, tactile and aromatic fluctuations triggered by a few degrees difference in temperature – the physical flux of beeswax is constantly apparent. As such, my material processes conjure embodied attentiveness, awareness of impermanence and interconnections between self and surroundings.
Working with beeswax as a sculptural material has lead me to investigate human relationships with honeybees, from scientific research into honeybee communication, how they build their hives in the wild as opposed to manmade structures and different mythologies about bees and traditions of keeping bees and using bee products, to current arguments around the value of honeybees, apiary practices and commercial management. My intuitive curiosity about this material parallels Post-Humanist calls for reconsideration of ethical investigations and standards across the full cycles of production and waste of our material consumption. Indeed ethical considerations of the non-human, and questions of sustainable practices, are of pertinent relevance to ways we relate to, manipulate and manage even small insects, such as the humble honeybee.
Throughout history, humans have shaped honeybees through selective breeding, intercontinental transportation and changing beekeeping practices, but honeybees have also shaped humans, through human food production, material traditions and cultural history. Bees are essential to human existence, not because of the honey they produce but because their pollination is essential for the success over a third of the world’s agricultural crops. The vast majority of global ‘domesticated’ honeybees kept by humans are of Italian origin, Apis mellifera. They are less aggressive than other species and generally able to produce excess honey. Over the past hundred and fifty years, beekeeping has become increasingly industrialized, to the point that it can be argued that commercial honeybee operations are similar to the factory farming of chickens and pigs. In response to this I specifically source my beeswax from Tim and Emma Malfoy, who practice sustainable natural beekeeping. They aim “to provide for the needs of the bee colony above that of the beekeeper” and this reflects the New Materialist aim of shifting our human-centric views towards greater considerations of non-human entities existing for their own ends rather than primarily being for human use.
Another aspect of the New Materialism discourses that resonates in my research and practice is the re-purposing the word ‘materiality’ to mean a process rather than a thing. This interest in process is relevant to many contemporary artists, whose practices challenge how we consider aesthetics as “material and embodied practice that brings everyday reality to bear on the artwork, then its aesthetic operates as the testing ground for the new materiality”. Indeed there are a number of artists working specifically with beeswax and honeybees, whose work can be interpreted in this way.
My current project Divest is an installation series of beeswax and ash, exploring uncontainablity and the seeping intersections between artifice and nature. A corner of the gallery appears infested with polyp-like beeswax forms, clustered in architectural crevices and scattered across walls and windows. Seemingly seeping inwards to gradually invade the space, these aromatic translucent shapes suggest embodied presence but their surfaces are smattered with ash, which in turn conjures a sense of uneasiness, vulnerability and loss.
To ‘divest’ is to dispose, to deprive of rights or property. As the title of this project, Divest implies loss of natural habitat and the adaptation of non-human life forms to inhabit human dominated spaces.
This work is a cyclic embodied exploration of healing, fragility, abandonment and entropy. The beeswax funnels are brittle, cold and empty, appearing to have once contained insects or small sea creatures. However, their actual formation is evidenced in the individual finger-sized scale, recalling how the warm beeswax was moulded in healing and bandaging gestures around my fingers. Some edges are thick, opaque and heavy, others are stretched, torn and thinned to marbled membrane like transparencies. These fragile fingerprinted forms conjure ancient practices of using beeswax in traditional healing and embalming processes, and echo the multiple histories of human relationships with honeybees.
Embedded in Divest is the symbolism of the materials themselves, the beeswax speaks of the hive, the bees’ honeycomb home, as a nurturing life force for the bees and their vital pollination role in ecosystems. It also implies an awareness of the current global honeybee crisis, Colony Collapse Disorder, caused by viruses, pesticides, parasites and unsustainable practices of commercial beekeeping. Along with the beeswax, the ash in this work is also is rich in its symbolism of natural cycles. The ash is scattered, a gesture that echoes grieving rituals across many cultures and more personally it recalls my father’s cremation.
Divest is installed by individually warming the beeswax funnels, so their natural stickiness causes adhesion when pressed onto surfaces. Sunlight occasionally illuminates the funnels’ brittle edges, and this transient translucency implies the porousness of boundaries and the vibrant, changing, instability of ourselves and everything in our surroundings.
1. Richie Nimmo, On bees, humans & hybrids, Background, Sociological Insect, 2013, accessed 7/8/14 http://sociologicalinsect.com/background/
2. Taggart Siegel, “Queen of the Sun, What Are the Bees Telling Us?,” (Portland, OR, USA: Collective Eye Production, 2011).
3. Tim Malfoy, “What Is Natural Beekeeping?,” Natural Beekeeping Australia: Ethical Sustainable Apriculture (2012), http://www.naturalbeekeeping.com.au./naturalbeekeeping.html
5. Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014). P 10
6. Ibid. P 13
7. Such as: Wolfgang Laib, Ren Ri, Tomáš Libertíny, Abdullah Syed, Aganetha Dyck, Mark Thompson, Rebecca Chesney, Makeshift (Tessa Zettel & Karl Khoe), Pierre Huyghe, Matthew Brandt, Penelope Stewart, Owen Leong, Alec Finlay and Sarah Mosca.
Boscagli, Maurizia. Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
Malfoy, Tim. “What Is Natural Beekeeping?” Natural Beekeeping Australia: Ethical Sustainable Apriculture (2012). Published electronically 2012. http://www.naturalbeekeeping.com.au./naturalbeekeeping.html.
Siegel, Taggart. “Queen of the Sun, What Are the Bees Telling Us?”, 82 minutes. Portland, OR, USA: Collective Eye Production, 2011.