Mid-September saw the publication of A Better Nectar by University Art Museum at the California State University Long Beach: a profusely illustrated 88-page catalog for the exhibition of the same name by Jessica Rath. The exhibition ran from January 27 through April 12, 2015. As the title of the catalog and exhibition might suggest, it has something to do with bees.
Rath’s previous works are steeped in research, examining how new apple hybrids were developed , for instance. Rath’s interests were turning toward bees in 2013, partly predicated on years of the news media’s drum beat sounding alarms about colony collapse. However, it was a subject she had been mulling over since 2007, when she discovered a fallen bee’s nest during a sound recording, and heard the hive bustling in a cold huddle, trying to keep warm. For A Better Nectar, UAM Curator of Exhibitions, Kristina Newhouse, noted in her catalog essay that Rath “consciously eschewed physical representations of bees.” Such a decision would be a visible departure from Ripe, where the artist created, among other work, a series of 18” large Roma tomatoes.
The key to moving away from such representation was an interview with Dr. Anne Leonard that Rath heard on public radio. Within the interview, Leonard discussed the relationship between flowers and pollinators, and about how bees perceive their environment: how they see the ultraviolet spectrum, smell the fragrance plumes of flowers, and feel their electric fields. The two eventually met, and the research began in full stride.
What the catalog documents is an interdisciplinary, and collaborative investigation and response into the lives of bees by enlarging and transforming their environment to a human scale. Dimly-lit rooms become immersive experiences simulating the darkened environments of developing pollinators. The physical structures of flowers were constructed to such magnitude that gallery-goers felt welcome to poke their heads into the sculptures, to sniff and see, and visibly simulate the paths and actions of bees as they gather pollen. A multi-channel audio recording, composed by Rath and collaborator Robert Hoehn—and performed by the Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir —sonically interpreted various states of a hive with compositions like Cold Huddle, Afternoon Forage, and Quiet Sleep. Each composition played within resin and fiberglass larvae vessels, programmed to respond to current weather conditions in Long Beach that streamed onto an iPad from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The catalog serves as a rich document of this exhibition. Writings touch on the various collaborations with Hoehn and the chamber choir, as well as engineers, fabricators, lighting designers, and botanists that worked on the project. The catalog also notes the University Art Museum’s relationship and programming with area elementary educators in the Long Beach Unified School District, and how this project fit within STEM curricula. Dr. Anne Leonard’s essay is an engaging account of how bees experience the world. Along with other essays by Newhouse and USC French and Comparative Literature professors Antonia Szabari and Natania Meeker, they not only account for the process and experience of the exhibition, but they also serve to inform the catalog’s design, most specifically its cover: a luscious purple that has the depth and richness akin to Prussian blue. This is “bee purple,” a simulation of color visible to bees in the ultraviolet spectrum, which helps them navigate the anatomy of a flower when pollinating. The play on ultraviolet sight is also referenced in the printing of the artists name in a UV spot coat, which from certain angles becomes nearly invisible. A gold foil stamp of the title also references colors in the spectrum of bee vision. Die cut into the cover are an X, Y and triangle: patterns evolved by flowers to guide bees to their nectar. At a glance, the use of foil stamping, UV spots, and die cuts seem like decadent printing excesses, but each smartly reinforces the content of the exhibition, translating the experiential qualities of the exhibition.
As such an engaging resource, with luck, A Better Nectar will eventually let the project re-emerge from its cold huddle—in whole or in part—and guide it to a new location to pollinate the mind.