We Just Want The Honey
BEYOND THE LIMIT/
BEYOND THE LIMIT/
We Just Want The Honey
Ana Prvački on the Lessons of Nature for Societal Change
Ana, you have a very close emotional connection to bees – how come?
I come from a family of beekeepers. When my great-great-grandmother married my great-great-grandfather, she brought bees as her dowry. Therefore, everyone in my family has been beekeepers for many generations. I learned beekeeping with my grandfather and when he passed away, he left me with 500 kilos of honey.
When and how did it get such an important meaning for your work?
When my grandfather died, I was pregnant and I became really obsessed with bees. I started reading and doing research, looking at the science, the mythology, but also at bee colony collapses – and I studied the history of bees and pollination. It turned into my passion. I just love bees. And you know what? Bees don’t really need us, like most of nature. But we need bees: without pollination our life and our evolution would have looked completely different.
What do you mean?
There’s loads of fruits, vegetables, nuts and flowers that are pollinated only by bees, for instance almonds and blueberries. Those are foods that are extremely nutritious and fundamental to our diet. Also, there are some plants that are pollinated only by bumble bees, for instance, because they require vibration. I think it’s phenomenal that you have flowers that respond only to one pollinator and to one specific touch. In huge parts of the world there are no more bees left and people are pollinating by hand. Imagine the energy that it takes for people to climb up trees with a little cue tip or a toothbrush, pollinating the plants.
In your work Post Apis (2010) you link the story of bees to the development of the stock market. How do bees and economics relate to each other?
The economic importance of bees is enormous. Just one example, 80% of the almond production in the world is located in California. It's a billion-dollar industry. The same counts for blueberries. Thinking about the high impact of pollination for our nutrition, I started one of my first project with bees, Post Apis, at the Bloomberg headquarters.
I convinced Bloomberg to give me one of their monitors and program it in such a way that on one side you had the latest news about bee colony collapses paired with scientific facts about bees. On the other side, the latest developments on the stock market were shown, investments which are dependent on pollination by bees, such as certain fruits. That way, one could clearly see how pollination affects our economies.
Bees don’t really need us, like most of nature. But we need bees.
You are also the first digital artist in residence at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. Recently, on July 8, your project Apis Gropius was launched, offering an augmented reality experience to all museum visitors. What can they expect?
It’s a site-specific piece that is highly ambitious, as it takes over the entire atrium of the Gropius Bau, connecting the history of the building with its architecture, the inside with the outside. And it’s not only a piece of augmented reality, but it also offers an augmented imagination.
What’s the story behind this work?
I wanted to connect all the different aspects that the Gropius Bau was interested in—hospitality, generosity, history, politics, poetry. And I thought a new species of bees would connect all of these. Its building has such a fascinating and devastating history. I looked at the archival pictures of the museum after it had been bombed, and I realized there was a garden in the middle and most of the columns on the walls had collapsed. Bees love cavities, they love open spaces that are kind of hidden, so they would have loved to move in these ruins.
What does the name Apis Gropius stand for?
I just invented this new species of bees, called Apis Gropius. Apis is Latin for “bee,” and Gropius refers to the building. During my research I searched for something that could move into the museum, coevolve with the institution, and stay there. It fits the history of the museum, which was formerly an arts and crafts school, and has always been filled with botanical motifs of daisies, flowers—and bees. That’s how I developed the idea of a bee colony that lives within the institution and gives it a new life.
To what extent does this work rely on scientific facts?
It’s a very good example of a work that combines art and science. It combines facts and poetry, it’s semifictional. As it works with augmented reality, it’s imaginative, but it also relies on scientific facts, for instance the fact that more and more bees are coming to the cities, because the countryside is intoxicated by pesticides.
What’s the role of speculation in your work?
I am very interested in art as a tool for speculation. There’s so much potential to seduce the audience with new ideas and images. “Apis Gropius” also creates that speculative space of an institution with a stable climate, a space that is free of pesticides and filled with ideas – and which could ultimately become a new home for bees.
How can digital technologies eventually help us to understand future scenarios and how do you employ them?
Everybody is concerned about the climate, trying to find ways of remedying the situation. Many solutions or proposals have to do with a strong desire for gamifying, there’s a craving for “edutainment” – being educated in an entertaining way. We need to play more, imagine more and work less to create less garbage. Out of my interest in play, I am also interested in technology as a tool for storytelling, imagination and innovation. Certainly bees won’t survive just because I create this augmented reality experience, but it creates a future scenario of how and where bees can survive.
Certainly bees won’t survive just because I created this augmented reality experience, but it creates a future scenario of how and where bees can survive.
Do you mean that we, as humans, create new spaces for bees that were formally not intended as such?
I see my work more as a memorial. Apis Gropius is very friendly and cute, and there’s a lot of sweetness to the project. But it’s also very serious. At the De Young Museum in San Francisco, I also created a memorial for bees. It’s a replica of one of the beehives that my grandfather had. It’s made from black granite by a local grave maker, it is also a gentle nod to minimalist sculpture. And I made a very interesting observation here: Once it was installed in the garden, people started putting flowers on it and talking about it, as if it was the grave of the bees. Especially the gardeners established an intense emotional relationship to this work. Hence, I asked the museum to plant a bee garden.
How did they react?
It was very difficult because bees are also a liability, and bees sting. There’s a lot of beautiful poetry about bees. Sappho, the Greek poet from antiquity, already wrote poems about bees. It contains many references to bees and honey, and also this idea that we just want the honey. We just want the sweetness. We don’t want the suffering. Sappho talks about bees in the context of love: everybody wants love, but no one wants disappointment or sorrow or pain.
Bees have a very important place in many mythologies and religions. They are perceived as these liminal beings that connect heaven and earth, such as in the oracles of Delphi, Aztec rituals, or Hindu mythology. They always bring in this duality of sweetness and sting, which is something that we’re not used to anymore. We all want instant gratification, and we just want the honey.
It seems that real honey is increasingly becoming a rare luxury product.
Exactly! About 14 years ago, a few months after my grandfather had died, I wondered what to do about all the honey he had left to me. And I had this dream to store it in banks all over the world – like other people would keep their jewelry. In the future, I will take my grandchildren to these banks with a little teaspoon and let them taste the honey – when no more honey will be left.
Bees have a very important place in many mythologies and religions.
Which stories about bees and honey did you discover in other countries?
Two years ago in Bangkok for the Biennial I worked with Thai beekeeping associations, we invited beekeepers from all over Thailand to give us their most precious, pure honey and create a honey safe. Honey is like a time capsule. Honey contains the information of the environment, the flowers, the toxins. In Buddhist storytelling, after Buddha reached enlightenment and after a long time of fasting and meditating, the first thing he tasted was honey that was brought to him by a monkey. We had about 40 different traditional beekepers donate their honey to be put it inside a temple safe, the Abbot has the key. I really like that idea that there is a safe for honey. My dream is to make safes like this one with local traditional honey in other regions, too.
Do you think bees could also be a role model for organizing our societies?
The moment that humans started observing bees, they started projecting their own ideas onto society. Many groups have claimed bees, be it Mormons or monarchs, even Napoleon loved bees, Unions and Anarchists too. However, I'm hesitant to think that we should aspire to be like bees. It’s more interesting to observe them, we can learn so much from them.
Bees are our hosts on this planet and we are their guests – therefore, they don’t need us, but we need them. They make everything themselves; we don't make anything ourselves. We buy everything. Maybe that’s one thing that we could aspire to, but I don't think it’s going to work. People are not willing to make sacrifices and work together for anything.
Looking at your other works, especially your video works, I realized you often employ humor as a tool. How do you keep your humor against the backdrop of the climate crisis?
Humor is essential for me, but I’m a little afraid of irony. I come from the Balkans, and the history of the region is so utterly tragic that humor becomes a survival tool. There’s something liberating and necessary about humor—and it’s an important seduction tool. The world is so polarized that humor could help.
You can also access a wider audience through humor.
Absolutely. It’s a very important methodology that ensures my work doesn’t become too didactic. I prefer to do research and present it in a playful way, I think that’s more effective than making people simply read the facts.
It’s more interesting to observe them; we can learn so much from them.
That leads me to one of my last questions: what drives your work as an artist?
That might sound naive, but I do believe in joy, I do believe in play and I do believe in humans. And I think we are starved for play.The meaning of my life is to make work that entails play and humor. You can call me a conceptual beekeeper. I would describe my practice as cross- pollinating, not cross-disciplinary. Pollination is fun, messy and precise business. Just like play. And one of my purposes in life is to make work about bees. When I got this honey, it was like a gift that I had to treat with care.
I like the way you describe your work. Do you think art can eventually change the world for the better?
I think we do our work the best we can, but it’s too much pressure to expect art to solve the world’s problems. We are never going to cure cancer. We are not going to bring peace to the Middle East. And I am not a politician. I’m not a scientist. I am an artist. Pretending that my role is anything else would be like pretending that I can cure masturbation. [Laughs.]
Can art nevertheless be a tool for education?
Absolutely. However, we have to be realistic about it: being an artist is a luxury and making art is a luxury, but it’s also a necessary one. Poetry is necessary. Beauty is necessary. The aesthetic experience is necessary. But suffering is also necessary.
In conclusion, could you please complete the following sentence for me: “To me this is personal because . . .”
It’s personal because it stings. What does that mean? Well, bees also evoke a discomfort or a provocation. And in the end, we only take things personally when it hurts. But suffering is also necessary. Climate change hurts and it's going to hurt more and more. And we really need new forms of story telling about this moment in time and climate change.
Interview by Antonia Lagemann
"Apis Gropius“ is a site-specific piece by Ana Prvački, the first digital artist in residence at the Gropius Bau. It takes over the museum’s entire atrium, connecting the history of the building with its architecture, the inside with the outside. It’s a piece of augmented reality, introducing a new species of bees, which connects all the different concerns the Gropius Bau is interested in – hospitality, generosity, history, politics, poetry.
Apis Gropius, 2021 - 2022, Gropius Bau Digital Residence
Opening in July 2022, Gropius Bau, Berlin
Honey Laundering, 2019/21 watercolor, 41x31 cm
Bee Memorial, 80 million years to 21st century, 2018
Osher Sculpture Garden at the de Young Museum San Francisco
Post Apis (Honey safe), 2020
BAB, Bangkok Biennial Wat Prayoon
An Emergency Queen in Cell, 2019/21 watercolor, 26x18 cm
Disguised bee, 2019/21 watercolor, 31x23 cm
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