In the beginning was the bee...


The artist Elisabeth Mathisen's year is not divided into weeks and months as it is for most of us. Her year follows the cycle of the bees. From the spring, when the weather turns warm and mild and the bees leave their winter cluster in the hives to collect pollen for the larva, to the late summer and early autumn when they prepare for the coming winter cluster. In the summer months she visits her hives of tame bees in a forest near Oslo, to take care of the bees and document their activities and behaviour. In the winter months, when the bees are resting, she transforms this collected material into art. The bee project has grown since Elisabeth Mathisen acquired her first swarm of bees in 2010. She has learnt how to take care of a bee colony in a way that disrupts the bees' natural rhythm as little as possible and has learnt about the threats and diseases a swarm of bees can be exposed to, which in the worst case can be fatal in such a confined colony. Her work is a slow process which progresses at the bees own natural tempo. Being around and handling bees and documenting the bee colony’s cycle requires patience and calm.

"Last summer I filmed a swarm of bees which had gathered high up in a tree. It was incredibly fascinating, but now I will have to wait until next summer to film a new swarm. In the autumn, I bought a straw hive which is an old-fashioned beehive made of straw. They aren't used anymore, but I thought I could use it to gather a swarm of bees. I have to extend the straw hive a little, so I have some work in front of me including researching how to get it to work in practice."

(Quote from email correspondence with Elisabeth Mathisen)

A unique aspect of Elisabeth Mathisen's artistic project is the time scope and the proximity to the subject, the bees. She can perhaps be compared with an author who rewrites a manuscript time and time again by hand or on a typewriter to get as close to the text as possible. She, like the author, creates a link between manual work and thinking. And maybe it is just this which has meant that the beekeeping for her is not just beekeeping but has developed to become an organic analogy between existence and art. The time span, the repetition and the manual or physical work provides time and space for reflection and for the development of an understanding of what you are working with. And for Elisabeth Mathisen, as an artist, converting experiences into form and working with them using the creative tools that she knows so intrinsically from her artistic work, is a very natural process.

Elisabeth Mathisen filmed the Video 'Nyttige kuber' (2010-11) during her first summer with the bees. The title gives direct association to the geometric colour surfaces in the paintings of Josef Albers or Mark Rothko or to the American minimalism of the 1960s. The video however, despite the title's reference to modernism and constructivism, is a poetic shimmering snapshot from which the smells of summer heat and wild, seed-heavy grass in a sunny glade in the forest seem almost to emanate. Its close-ups of the buzzing swarm of bees, filmed from a fixed camera angle, is a work of video art which is figurative, but approaches abstractionism through the almost meditative visual and frenetic audio monotony. The analogy between the film and modernistic art is however not obtuse, as Elisabeth Mathisen just as the modernistic artists search for the essence and reduce a work to its basic elements. There is a form of naturalism in her simplification of the artistic process. The video recordings are direct registrations of reality, but at the same time the slightly billowing pink sheet, which forms the background for filming the bees, forms a subtle contrast to what has been directly recorded. It intensifies the sensuous experiences of the bees, which under normal circumstances would not be visible even from a short distance, and adds painterly qualities to the recordings, like a composition on a canvas.

The video recordings and photographic documentation represent a significant part of Elisabeth Mathisen's work registering the behaviour of swarms of bees. In addition, she sketches, makes notes and has developed a herbarium of the dried, pressed flower species she has observed the bees collecting pollen and nectar from. Her own bees live in a forest clearing a distance away from her home in the city, but she now sows flowers in her garden to attract bumblebees, wild bees and other pollinating insects. She also composts her kitchen waste which, with time, becomes healthy, nutrient-rich topsoil for the flowers to grow in. The circle is complete. But the starting point remains the bees, in both Elisabeth Mathisen's work, in the wider perspective and in the ecosystem. Without them and the other pollinating insects no pollination will take place, and without pollination most plants cannot reproduce.

Christel Pedersen


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