Monday, August 27, 2012

Swarm (ASX) & The bee library

By Patrick Sutczak

One of the greatest things about an arts event like the Biennale is that as a viewer, works reveal themselves as the venue is explored, quite often when you least expect it. Before me, as I sat on the bench after meandering around on the upper part of Cockatoo Island, the work of Scottish born artist Alec Finlay was sparking my curiosity. His installation dotted around the grassy area in front of me consisting of sound, sculpture, and books (they were above my head), was inviting closer inspection, but I didn’t engage. Not at first.

The reason for this was that something was happening and I wanted to try and figure out what it was. Several tall wooden boxes (which I did think looked a bit like bee boxes) were scattered around. Each one capped with a silver lid. Placed on the top of each lid was a large rock. On the side of each box were three different black letters, for example BSE, SSE, and TSE. At this point I plead ignorant because I had no idea what the acronyms stood for. In conjunction with this was the sound emanating from within each box. Loud, chaotic and somewhat bee-ish, the competition of one box over the next was fierce, and somewhat lost to the fluctuating winds that had been steadily building.

Off to the left, a large group of visiting primary school youngsters were seated on the grass; a thriving mass threatening to break from the undulating cluster trying so desperately to be controlled by a couple of frustrated teachers. The noise was not dissimilar from that of the boxes. I wouldn’t say that the rising chatter of children upon the gusts of swirling wind detracted from enjoying the sound of Finlay’s work. In fact I think it actually accentuated its message. After reading his statement displayed on a nearby fence, the work and the environment in which I experienced it, started to have clarity.

Swarm (ASX) is a translation of the world stock exchange. What I was hearing was the sound of actual economic activity being retold by the sound of Australian honey bees in the hive. The rise and fall, the intensity and the slowness – all a reflection of the flow of figures and data consistently played out on the world stock market every single day. London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo – they were all there, ten boxes in total as ten major players on the economic stage. Now those black letters made sense.

With the bees recorded by sound artist Chris Watson, Finlay has described their natural ecosystem as ‘dynamic, in flux, undergoing crisis, confronting potential catastrophe’ – sound familiar? For me, Swarm (ASX) is a clever representation of contemporary economic society. Stock exchanges are like hives – individuals buzzing around generating deafening noise all working together for someone (their Queen perhaps?) to get a result. I have never been one to understand the mechanics of the world, let alone the financial world – maybe the greed and intensity frightens me, but I feel Swarm (ASX) says an awful lot about how those involved in moving the pieces of the global economy (I guess we all are…) around can be perceived by an outsider. A bustling bee hive of workers who will follow their pursuit until destitution or death – such is the lure of money.

Photo courtesy of the 18th Biennale of Sydney and Alec Finlay, 2012
While Swarm (ASX) is concentrating on the economy, the second instalment of Finlay’s Biennale project is The bee library.  This is the opposite of heightened activity. Far from representing the economy, this ongoing project represents a quest for knowledge – an individual indulgence that yields the honey. This is a delightful installation hanging in the trees above the wooden ‘hives’ below. Looking more like traditional birdhouses, their intention is to grab the attention of single bees without the fancy job. There, in one of several libraries, bees can hang out in a bamboo pole while housed under a roof made from an open book and contemplate life away from the grind.

Many of the books are bee related texts that are being recycled onto Finlay’s bee library blog The Bee Bole. Slowly the blog will become a global bee library of information and poetry. The bibliography currently boasts twenty-four bee books and I imagine will continue to grow with each incarnation of Finaly’s work around the world (the first library was installed in Yorkshire in May 2012).

Swarm (ASX) and The bee library were a highlight for me on the island and worthy of the time to stay just that little bit longer to look, listen and think. Money or Honey? I know which one I prefer.

Check out the Bee Bole at

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