Sunday, April 19, 2009

Afterthoughts: Third Mind: Bees on Film

The high point of my visit to the “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989,” a Guggenheim exhibit that closed today, was Mark Thompson’s short film Immersion.

I walked in toward the end of the loop, so I saw the end first. There was a blue screen with vertical rounded shape (something like a lingam, one of those phallus-shaped monuments to Shiva), the surface of which was swarming with bees.

I knew there was a man under there, but I was quite certain he was wearing a veil or some other protective gear.

The clip ended and the screen went blue. I sat down. I was restless; the exhibit talked a lot about emptiness, but there had been a vast amount of information to absorb. I wasn’t in anything remotely resembling a zen state.

There was a sudden buzzing and a dot shot across the blue screen.

Eventually another. And another.

A lot of museumgoers did much the same thing—they stuck their heads in, buzzed off. This is what I usually do with video, but this time I was determined to stay through the whole thing.

Bee by bee, the room began to thrum. I read later that the bees had been shot at a slightly slower speed and then the film had been sped up, so they zoomed across the screen leaving little tracers. There seemed to be patterns to the flight. It felt abstract but not random, like a Pollock.

The density kept building. The distance between the camera and the bees occasionally shifted. Sometimes a bee would turn toward the camera, hovering, as if it were confronting its future viewers. You could see its legs dropped.

A lot of the time those rounded projectiles seemed to pass in twos. Was that a trick of the camera? Or were the bees, in the midst of all that activity, flying in pairs?

Eventually the filmmaker appeared—a pale young white man with a drooping mustache. It was 1973 or thereabouts. I read later that he’d put the queen on his head.

The bees landed, one after the other. He didn’t close his eyes. He blinked as they touched his eyelids. For a moment I could feel his breathing. The drama had begun. Thousands of bees would soon descend on him.

There was no room for sneezing, no room for error. Was there a moment of terror? He stayed so still. Breathing in, I imagine. Breathing out.

The bees gradually filled him in, covering his hair, his shoulders, erasing his face. I wondered how he could breathe—would they investigate his nostrils?

The contours of his head disappeared—he was just a rough outline, no longer clearly human. I tried to imagine how his ears felt, what was happening inside his skull, in the darkness, what it would be like to be living inside that throbbing hum.

Could he remember who he was? I was pretty lost in it myself.

The bees clustered, shifted, sometimes slipped, and then redistributed, a wall in constant motion. And then the image faded away, and the screen went back to blue waiting.

I looked at the plaque on my way out—29 minutes. The time had gone very fast. It was almost a meditation—a half an hour of sitting, breathing, the pulsation and droning, the storm and the nothingness.

I returned to the museum’s spiraling walkway. I was nearly at the top. I wasn’t going to look at anything else. I was done, I was quiet, all the intellectual ferment buzzed away.

I walked slowly down the ramp. Paint colors popped out at me as I drifted by.

P.S. I’ve looked around for Mark Thompson—seems he’s still an artist and beekeeper on the West Coast. Earlier this year, he was one of the attendees at a talk proposing a more spiritual approach to keeping bees. A book by Kevin Kelly features a striking account of Thompson walking, and not for art’s sake, with a swarm, the bees swirling around his head like a halo.


Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

Whoa! This is amazing. I am now seriously regretting having missed this show. Need to track down film if possible. Will explore the links on your posting soon.

Re. your comment about the formational flying within the seeming chaos of the swarming bees, I have observed the same thing watching a swarm take off from a hive. A clear sense of patterns in the flight, forming little lines, as if the bees were following each other very closely through the air, on invisible tracks, as it were. My poorly shot video of the swarm 2 years ago (which you subsequently aided in the capture of), shows this very distinctly. Remind me to dig it up and show it to you sometime. I wonder if anyone has studied this aspect of bee flight in the context of swarming. Related, of course, to the bee-line, in some way....

ps154artstudio said...

I sat for most of it (in two sessions) and liked it. The most exciting work for me was at the top of the ramp, Thompson and Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh but I loved the oddity of the words ecstatic and minimalism paired together to label the paintings of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. I think I might like this show more than anyone I've sent to see it. Zen on a ramp.

KC said...

yo, ps154! Thanks for sending me to see it!
And G., yes, I wondered exactly that, if anyone had studied the flight. Would love to see your swarm footage, and I'd wondered if you'd noticed what I thought I was seeing...

Joan said...

this reminds me vaguely of an installation I saw once at Dia, big footage of bees moving across their great white walls, but probably nothing compared to this.

apropos of nothing, check in with me whenever there's something you want to see at Whitney or Met...You mentioned being a MoMa member, and I don't get into the Gugg, but I can get into either of the other places.