Bees were the subject of Speakers Corner today – so during the tour we explored the symbolism of the materials that Beuys used and the way he manipulated them to create meaning. The tour included a range of familiar and new faces all of whom were keen to find out something new.

The first image as you walk into the gallery is both powerful and an ideal starting point and I explained that it was the complexity of the man and his ambitions that interested me. Beuys had a breadth of knowledge and understanding about the natural world, the world of politics and education and it seemed important to say that some of his ideas and beliefs were simple to understand but sometimes they were confusing and difficult – but it really didn’t matter whether you understood them all or not. I wanted to suggest that knowing things in a factual way is not the only way of appreciating art and that by shifting the emphasis back to the viewer they could open their mind to what things might mean to them.

We looked at some of the materials Beuys used – iron, steel, felt. He strongly believed that materials were not neutral – that they always had strong associations with the past. In connection with Speakers Corner we looked at how he used various substances, such as honey and fat as a means of healing or nourishment and whether his idea was to start healing western Europe after the horrors of the Second World War or maybe, as one of the tour suggested, to heal himself too ! For me the appeal of his choice of materials is the avoidance of anything arty and his desire to re-use and reformulate his materials or even to use ready made items such as a water bottle or a sled. I like the way he pushes the materials into strange ways of being – like the honey pump – which raises lots of questions – what does 2 tons of honey look like how do you get it to move through a pump ? Hope I remember to ask the speaker !

Fat chair is an extraordinary piece of work and we talked about the qualities of fat and lard and their mutability. We tried to imagine how bad it might smell once out of its air conditioned box. The idea that anyone could put two different materials together and create something so strange and compelling seemed magical – an idea that sits happily with Beuy’s belief that he was a transformer and trickester – changing things, mixing things up to create meaning and then, sometimes, changing his mind.

One lady, who has attended every talk, said how she had never heard of Beuys until recently and exclaimed how excited she is by his work and how privileged she feels in being able to see some of his wonderful sculptures and drawings locally at the De La Warr Pavilion.

We held Speakers Corner on the north staircase today – it was light, airy and gave ample room for people to sit and listen, join in or drop in and out of the session. As the sun poured in Angie Biltcliffe told us about her passion for bees and beekeeping. After a short course on bee keeping at Plumpton College she has spent the last 5 years building up a series of hives dotted in and around Hastings.

On the table in front of her was an old observation hive containing bees … lots of bees seemingly squished into quite a small space …. but they seemed quite happy in their waxy home. Also there was a jar of pale honey from one of Angie’s hives made from apple blossom, a lump of hardened wax, and some cleaned combs – beautifully constructed and smelling sweet and flowery. A member of the audience wanted to know how much honey a bee makes and the surprising answer is – about one to two teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. A bee might make ten trips a day and visit 100 flowers per each trip and probably does this every day of its life, which is about 4 weeks. Angie said that her hives this year were doing very well with one probably producing 60 lbs of honey.

Angie described how sensitive the bees are in response to human behaviour – so if you are jumpy and nervous the bees will be too. She explained how initially she was rather nervous of the bees, worrying that they might sting her, but with time she found them very restful and calming, suggesting that the humming they make is soothing. She also put forward the belief that bee keepers are rarely ill – so enhanced are they by their activities that they stay healthy.
A hive might contain between 20,000 and 80,000 bees. At the core is the Queen bee which may live up to 3 years and lay around half a million eggs. She is raised in the normal way but fed more royal jelly. A disussion broke out on the subject of royal jelly and how it is found in cosmetics – which does seem rather wasteful of the bees efforts. Once the queen has developed she takes flight and begins mating, with several or many drones. The mating takes place some distance from the hive and several hundred feet in the air. The drones are the largest bees and exist soley to mate with the queen, after which they are a bit of a burden. The workers are mainly female bees and they work hard to ensure the hive thrives. At each stage of their life they have a specific job to do whether it is cleaning cells and incubation or later being entrance guards and nectar and pollen foraging.
Questions from the audience indcluded ones about swarming, Angie assured us that a swarm of bees is quite safe, they are not in a defensive state and will not harm you. The audience was very keen to get up close to the bees and study the honey, the combs etc and at the end of the talk there was a surge of people wanting to know more about bee keeping and Angie offered to help anyone who was interested.

Posted by Ryan Coleman on Tuesday 18 August 2009