Artist Anne Noble is one of Aotearoa's mostly widely respected contemporary photographers. A Distinguished Professor of Fine Art (Photography) at Massey University. Over a career that commenced in the early 1980s, Noble has won numerous awards and fellowships for using the camera and - more recently - her body, as well as other non-camera mechanisms to make photographic images she hopes will help us better perceive and relate to the non-human world.
In 2008, after a second fellowship in Antarctica where she captured a series of images she refers to as "Piss Poles - markers in a pure and vast horizon of white - designated for pissing against, she went down to the bottom of her garden and began tending bees.
Beekeeping urges you to slow down, to feel and observe very closely other living organisms. Noble suggests close proximity to the vibration of a colony can be naturally restorative and healing, "I would go out in the evening to spend time watching the bees flying home. As the sun went down, the low-angle light would catch the bees' wings, flashes of light coming and going." Over time this experience began to shift her perception of the world and changed her as an artist.
Tending a bee colony awakens us to the realisation that the planet is made up of a series of complex interconnections of networks and relationships. Observing how a colony struggles or survives over a season begins to make these connections palpably visible.
Like many beekeepers it became for Noble "a kind of love affair". As a naturally curious researcher, it was only a matter of time before her two passions – art and beekeeping - would combine.
More than a decade later, many collaborative adventures have emerged that traverse multimedia installations in a decommissioned 12th century Cistercian monastery in France and QAGOMA in Australia, an extensive school research project in Aotearoa; and of course, several arresting bodies of photographic work that are generously shared throughout this beautifully crafted publication.
Conversātiō (meaning listening, attention and keep company with) allowed Noble, editor Zara Stanhope and designer Anna Brown to shine a light on the collective work that was drawn together, as Noble suggests, by the bees themselves. This discursive approach allows us to see the various modes of collaboration and ways of working that come forth when you create space for everyone to "bring their own bee voice or bee interest to the table".
Noble and Victoria Coldham-Fussell collate some terrific extracts from literature over 2500 years, showing some accurate and some nonsensical histories of human relationships to bees and the stories that have been told within different cultural contexts over centuries. Amusing assumptions made by the likes of Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE-65 CE) in his essay to the Roman Emperor Nero and William Shakespeare in Henry V (c.1599) reveal, for example, the female queen bee has been mistaken for a male king, for vast periods of history.
The book is a beautiful object in and of itself. A folded handout points back to an original publication Noble and Brown created to support her installation and performance at the Abbaye de Noirlac in France in 2016. Like a letter posted between friends, it holds two months of intimate correspondence between Noble and French scientist and beekeeper Jean-Pierre Martin in 2016 as they both tended their hives, one here in New Zealand in summer and the other in France in the depth of winter.
Together they begin to unpack questions they share about the intelligence honey bees possess as both individuals and a conscious colony.
Some questions are answered by Professor Emeritus at the Queensland Brain Institute, Dr Mandyam (Srini) Srinivasan. His research exploring the tiny brain of the bee, which weighs less than a milligram, reveals their ability to perform complex mathematical and navigational tasks allowing them to communicate to each other in such an agile fashion. His collaboration with Noble played a significant part in the design of Conversātiō - a Cabinet of Wonder. This live installation for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2018 allowed Noble to focus on the creativity of the bees themselves, in what she refers to as, a living photograph.
The cabinet was a multi-sensory experience of bees that brought the sound and smell within the hive into view. Creating a framework for the observer to tune into and give attention to the living ecosystem as it grew over a five-month duration. It was a local sensation where "the life within the cabinet of wonders was echoed by visitors and visitor service staff in the gallery space" as they gathered in huge numbers to see the daily performance of revealing the hive.
Writer and curator Mark Amery's essay, "Learning with living systems", discusses how Noble's project grew to encompass the classroom itself. Centred around specially designed classroom apiscopes, a team of artists, musicians, writers and scientists worked with students over many months. Noble's work in education, Amery suggests, shows how the "role of the artist, working collectively with others, can be better valued as a way to listen and expand our awareness of the world beyond the art gallery". Links to supporting digital content provided in the book give the reader access to both archival footage of the installations previously referred to, and the students' work that resulted from this interdisciplinary activation.
These narratives are poignant and topical in the context of current discourse about the value of the creative arts in our educational curriculum.
Bee lovers' voices share Conversātiō with Noble's beguiling use of light to present the bee using tintype photography, photograms and the electron microscope. With images of dead bees juxtaposed against vital living collaborations, Noble presents our current conundrum, one that science can't answer but rather calls on our humanity. Will humans slow down, tune into, collaborate and change their actions? Will we co-create a world of "Life teeming, buzzing"?, as in the title of the essay by art writer Gwynneth Porter. Or will we be left with only beautiful photographs of dead bees to look at?
Sarah Smuts-Kennedy is an artist and a regenerative organic educator. She is the vision holder of a social sculpture, For the Love of Bees, 2016-ongoing. Her research focuses on syntropic systems thinking, systems that support and nurture life. She is currently showing work in the exhibition and auction When the Dust Settles at Artspace Aotearoa and opens a solo exhibition, Joy Field, at Sumer, Tauranga, on September 29.
by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown
(Massey University Press, $60)