Transforming seven rooms at Andrew Edlin Galley, terence koh: bee chapel perplexes from its start — where bibelots suspended between the glass of wood boxes resemble both beehive frames and cabinets of curiosity — to its end, where the eponymous bee chapel, a small hut made of beeswax, looms at the top of a stairwell sculpted of dirt. For an exhibition that appears so far removed from reality, Terence Koh’s first one since what’s often framed as his “exit from the art world” in 2014 (he simply moved to the Catskills) feels incredibly of-the-moment and urging. I feel many, many miles away from the Bowery, roaming through these curious, immersive spaces, but also a heavy sense of unease, encountering symbols of death and physical reminders of past, charged political events or tragedies that seem to especially resonate this year — which, although only half over, continues to deliver the world blow after blow.
Koh took as his springboard for this overcoming show the tiny honeybee, whose presence swarms the entire gallery in myriad ways: he’s sculpted beeswax into human hands, which at times clasp one another; warm, golden honey gleams in one of the wood-framed boxes, accompanied by pebble-like bee pollen; some of the frames house the dried bodies of dead bees; and within the beeswax bee chapel hangs an actual hive, connected to the outside world through a slim, clear tube.
Koh’s mind has been abuzz with bees since 2014, when he left New York City for the mountains. There, he built his first bee chapel and began using beeswax and found imagery to create the aforementioned framed collages. These are quite beautiful despite their sinister contents: they integrate old stamps from conflict zones, photographs of criminals, postcards and letters from places including Ferguson, and the battered cover of a book showing the World Trade Center at dusk. This last item perches on a slope of earth littered with dead bees, forming an eerie and odd allusion to 9/11.
At a glance, the objects seem simply like the material amassed overtime by an indecisive collector, but they evoke a sense of darkness, or at least disorder, heightened by their haphazard placement. Much more glaring visions of death arrive in the form of a human skull hanging from the ceiling, a dead canary lying in a hole in the wall, and one glass pane, cracked by a bullet. And in the hallway we receive reminders of political movements concerning matters of life or death: pins calling for political or social reform, attached to draped quilts. They include buttons that read, “I can’t breathe,” “DEMS for ERA,” “LIFE,” and “Republicans for Choice” to form a patchwork of the diverse, spirited campaigns that have emerged over time across the US addressing everything from racism to gender equality to environmental issues.
When non-beekeepers discuss honeybees, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is typically the topic at hand. Seeing the traces of a disappearing species alongside artifacts of our own societal turmoil invites comparisons; Koh seems to be prodding us to think about losses on various scales and about our own mortality — how the decisions we make steer us towards or away from our own collapse, whether that be population, or at least social, decline. The beeswax hands, dusted with ash, with many tightly gripping each other, either resemble gestures of reassurance or the last, parting grasps of companions.
This sense of a universal precariousness is heightened in the next room, which is dark and filled with dirt, with a red bulb providing the only light. Transported from an orchard, a diseased apple tree Koh has named Eve — the reference to doom here is heavy-handed — sprawls across its length. At its roots is a web of fiber optic cables that use electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor the activity of the tree: the gallery staff is attempting to keep it alive, watering its roots daily. It’s an effort that highlights its failure as a possibility, such as Koh’s idea to power the entire show using solar panels that stand by the gallery’s entrance. A helmeted figure resembling both astronaut and apiarist also lies on a stretcher-like bed beside one wall, wearing a suit covered in more reform buttons. The bizarre sculpture introduces extra eeriness, seemingly sleeping or staring at you from behind its reflective visor.
The entire room brings together earth and outer space in subtle yet grand gestures. Filling the room is a soft, whooshing sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away — the historic “chirp” scientists recorded in February providing evidence of gravitational waves Einstein predicted. It mixes with the live buzzing of bees, miked up in their chapel, to form a disquieting drone. You can feel actual, slight vibrations, too, as Koh has engineered the ground to rumble gently beneath your feet. Standing there, surrounded by the sounds and feeling of hums from movements both massive and tiny, I was very conscious of my place in this vast and unnerving world — in this spot, literally trembling.
Stillness arrives in the bee chapel, which looks like something you’d see in a fairy cove. Neither shoes nor cellular devices are permitted in this final, tiny room, filled with the sweet and strong scent of honey. Koh presents another startling moment: after ascending the soft steps, you swing open the door and arrive face-to-face with the large hive crawling with bees, with only mesh fencing separating the swarm from your visage. The sight is initially spine-tingling, augmented by the loud buzzing, but after standing in that sanctuary for a moment, I began to feel a strong sense of calm and a satisfaction from watching the creatures flit around, conducting whatever business necessary to collectively support their community. It was reassuring to see these small insects working steadily, to confront a small part of nature’s cycle that although threatened elsewhere, feels constant here. And gallery visitors may also enjoy the product of the bees’ hard and successful efforts: honey is provided in the first room to taste with tea, to be sipped while perusing a library of tomes on topics related to bees, the cosmos, philosophy, and much more.
bee chapel is the latest effort that introduces beehives to unexpected spaces, which seems to be a growing trend. Today, you’ll find them on the roof of the Whitney, in Greenwood Cemetery, and on the edge of Storm King, where Peter Coffin has set up an apiary to teach visitors about honeybees’ needs. Last year, MoMA’s sculpture garden was buzzing from Pierre Huyghe’s reclining nude work that housed a colony of honeybees; over the past few months, Meg Webster’s “Concave Room for Bees” at Socrates Sculpture Park has been attracting pollinators to the earthwork’s lush flora. I like to think of all these projects as our collective attempts to save the honeybees, whether by educating people on CCD, by increasing awareness of how much they contribute to society, or by simply making them very present to the public. Koh’s highlighting of orderly hives within our own messy world reminds that humans are just one of nature’s many populations facing urgent matters. The difference lies in our potential to tackle them, whether it’s providing a home for bees or pledging to work together to water a single, dying tree. Many issues right now may seem wildly out of our control, but we do have the ability to problem-solve — all we need is the agency.
terence koh: bee chapel continues at Andrew Edlin Gallery (212 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 29.