Thursday, 13 October 2011

a field student of f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & f & ...........

field studies in progress

installation at The Hornbeam Centre
as part of
Here Local Further Afield
E17 Art Trail 2011

Why did I include a paperback copy of Ariel amidst the beekeeping paraphernalia making up the installation ‘field studies in progress’. This volume of poetry by Sylvia Plath was first published by faber & faber in 1965 and I’ve had a 1983 edition for nearly 28 years. In all that time, still just one of the tulips on the cover has wilted; bent double and drooping over the rim of the vase. A mass of faber & faber trademarks (‘Redcoats, everyone’?) surrounds the image of the flowers, SYLVIA PLATH and Ariel in a pattern which has the regimentation or uniformity of the printed wax sheets used by some beekeepers as foundation for the requisite honeycomb; the hanging walls of hexagonal cells in which the worker bees (Plath’s ‘honey-drudgers’) must deposit their honey. Of the 40 poems within the volume there are 4 specifically from Sylvia Plath, the apiarist; ‘The Bee Meeting’, ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, ‘Stings’ and ‘Wintering’.
In ‘The Bee Meeting’ the poet is a neophyte witnessing the arcane practices of village beekeepers. The poetry, from her initiation in the circle of their hives, is fraught yet lyrical; the bees are characterised as ‘outriders, on their hysterical elastics’.
In ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ the poet receives a nucleus of bees - a queen bee and her cohort of workers, ‘a box of maniacs’ which is the core of a new bee colony. As a new beekeeper, Plath shares her trepidation at her nurturing role and the barely tameable force of her newly acquired ‘mob’.
‘Stings’ sees us witness to the poet’s awkward identification with the worker bees, ‘these women who only scurry’ and, in a lost queen and ailing hive, ‘a self to recover’. The last stanza reveals a morbid and supernatural ascendance.
Plath shares her honey harvest following the whirl of her ‘midwife’s extractor’ in, ‘Wintering’. The poet’s relationship with the bees has transformed and faltered in the hiatus and hibernation of winter leaving the reader with a difficult meditation on a precarious yet hopeful incubation.
Ariel was accompanied by another book in the installation, The BEE COMMUNITY, by F H Metcalf, published by Beecraft in 1948. The book, for laypeople and beekeepers, is intended as an account of the scientific knowledge of beekeeping and a response to the ‘mass of fantasy and mystery’ that has grown around the honeybee. Chapter VII, Unsolved Problems and Mysteries, examines the issue of collective and individual consciousness in particular the subordination of the individual or individuality. Metcalf comments on the possibility of a fault in the ‘community mind’ wherein the worker bees in winter ball around the queen to insulate her (it?); many of them die in the process. They can ‘ball’ so tightly they kill the queen. Scientific research since 1948 may have revealed or generated other interpretations of this phenomenon however the observation is pertinent to an understanding of Plath’s poem ‘Wintering’ and more fundamentally the dialectic of individual and collective expression.
Plath’s poetry may anthropomorphize bees via verse which can be morose and fragile and in the bitter sweetness of her metaphors there is much that can be regarded as a mass of fantasy and mystery. Dismissing the fantasy and mystery may be characteristic of what John Berger, in ‘Why Look at Animals’ regards as a corporate capitalist process which ruptures ‘every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature’. Berger’s thesis begins with animals more sentient and doe-eyed (cows/livestock) however Plath’s totemism does not present so much of a digression or transgression. Bees are magical, tameable/containable and their honey intensely alimentary and in their habits, proximity and ‘invitation’ (Berger) a means to metaphoric connections with nature as a more encompassing whole; the first metaphor was animal.
There is little in the way of doe-eyed sentimentalism in Plath’s poetry - that disneyfication and cultural marginalization of animals Berger rails against. Plath's sentiments are often raw evocations of sex, birth and death.
In ‘Wintering’,
            The Bees are all women,
            Maids and the long royal lady.
            They have got rid of the men,
            The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
These primordial relations are quite exquisitely expressed in the compelling meter and sentiment of this song accompanied fittingly by a confused image of a bee - Billy Bee.
Since I started keeping bees some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry has become less obscure and esoteric - particularly the beekeeping poems. Until then the poetry verged on being hermetic. The esoteric affinities of the poetry may be a response to a desperate sense of loneliness born of a loss of ancient values, myths and primordial ideals. What certitude did Sylvia Plath seek? The installation was a memento mori consisting as it did mostly of objects and materials which had perished in various ways e.g. a worn out smoker - the leather bellows holed, dry and cracked. It can be repaired and revived.
The multi sensory installation invited visitors to consider how such a sensibility contributes to the tasks and actions deemed necessary to address social and environmental dilemmas. How does writing, reading and appreciating poetry about bees deal with the dire consequences of declining bee populations? Those actions are a way to understanding some of the conditions which hinder creative and sustainable participation. Sociability is not necessarily in itself the solution to all problems - what people do (and how well) is important. Also in Here Local Further Afield was Sian Collins’ ‘The Meeting Room 2011’, a document representing a gathering which took place in The Hornbeam Centre’s meeting room. I imagine the meeting being warm, lively, and loud, buzzing (if you’ll excuse the obvious allusion) and perhaps reassuring. We could compare or allude to it in the encounters in ‘The Bee Meeting’.
These art and craft works may be akin to social tools in a convivial space within an expansive egalitarian context that is the E17 Art Trail. The presence of outstandingly unique talent expressing and founded upon psychological disorder is awkward to say the least. The autonomy of individualism may equate with liberation from rules and restraints and from conformity but to what consequence? Suzi Gablik asserts the consequence and meaning is ‘alienation from the social dimension itself’. Counter to arch individuality bereft of social significance and social obligation (a social vacuum) is a desire for a ‘more circumspect state of mind’ perceiving ‘the need to strengthen art against the present conditions of arbitrariness and fragility’. Was Hornbeam’s meeting room a rejection of a modernist bell jar and if so to what consequence?

Has Modernism Failed (Revised Edition), Suzi Gablik.
Why Look at Animals, John Berger.


  1. Excellent work Julian, hope you are thinking about some pages for the 2011 Field Report?
    best wishes

  2. Thank you David for your appreciation and yes I am thinking about pages for the report and other Field Study emanations. I hope some pages will be on the way to you by mid November and look forward to seeing, hopefully,a picture bog post of the package rubbing edges with others in the fine art of Field Study's post box towards the end of the year.
    Much respect,