Apiary Transformed

By Dr. Sam Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Art History, Princeton University

Mykola Zhuravel might seem to have a narrow focus, at our first encounter, steadily building on a body of work that is centered on bees, beehives and beekeeping. Furthermore, the exquisite conceptual drawings, paintings, models, sculptures and documentary materials in the Ukrainian artist’s Apiary project present an arresting and even deeply affecting array of images based on the age-old practice of nurturing honeybees.

But his seemingly simplistic subject matter, while visually quite satisfying, is merely the enticing and mystical gateway to a worldview that Zhuravel constantly enriches in his ingenious approach to an expansive subject matter. To embrace it in another mode, Apiary both is, and is not, just as its title certainly suggests: a beehive, designed and constructed by a man whose family has actually been beekeeping for generations. At its center is the actual hive, a remarkable hand-crafted wooden structure whose tilted conical configuration suggests both the Phrygian cap, a classic symbol of revolution, and a human heart, banded by ribs and marked on its muscular wall with striated graffiti.

Supporting the organic beehive structure are forms and objects related to its major theme, and all are dedicated to Petro Ivanovych Prokopovych, the nineteenth-century Ukrainian scientist who devised a system of “rational” beekeeping and actually reinvented the modern beehive. Zhuravel borrows from his spiritual mentor and pays him homage by moving his tutorial and ethos into the twenty-first century. That, however, means more than modernizing a box fitted with removable frames; Zhuravel’s visionary project adapts and deconstructs Prokopovych’s influential principles to the concept underlying them all, and takes into lyrical consideration its emotional, symbolic and universal dimensions.

To put it another way, Zhuravel, the Kyiv State Arts Academy graduate who continues to live in his native Kyiv while exhibiting internationally, has actually created a major bee’s-nest that expressed its functions in grander, more lyrical, and perhaps even metaphysical terms. He next proceeded to collaborate with the bees that, over time, settled into his structure, and he thus completed his dense, complex concept by actually creating honey, while also making art! Instead of making sterile observations or shaping specimens, Zhuravel turned to nature to create a thriving monument to man’s links to the Earth itself, and to their harmonious qualities. At the same time, he pointedly made reference to man-made obstacles to such a harmonious co-existence, a process that has now consumed him for decades, ever since he began showing his work, even before his graduation from art school in 1989, and then afterward, in the liberated, post-Soviet era in Ukraine.

The turbulence of those troubled times has lingered in Zhuravel’s oeuvre, most notably in a 2000 performance piece he entitled Aggressive Beekeeping. Part of his vast Apiary project, it begins with the oxymoron of its title, for by its very nature, beekeeping is a beneficent, and rather passive occupation. In videotapes documenting the fiery destruction of a beehive, the artist shows the world turned upside down in Aggressive Beekeeping, transforming a peaceable kingdom into a virtual hell. Instead of using smoke to herd bees gently in and out of hives, an unbalanced keeper uses violent flames to utterly violate the bees’ sanctuary. In much the same way, Aggressive Beekeeping’s shocking and violent implications apply to a wider world in which traditional values are suddenly, unpredictably consumed. The beehive’s symbolism as a temple in which golden honey is miraculously produced has been corrupted; as the hive burns, gold becomes the eternal color of commerce, and cooperation mutates into domination.

Just as resonant, though far quieter in their imagery and implications, are installations and performance pieces that flank Aggressive Beekeeping in Zhuravel’s body of work. Blank white spheres marked with red directional arrows represent the purposeful movement of bees in the 1998 Spheres, while science and sheer wonder conspire poetically in Conservation of the Mist, the 2002 project that enlarges upon Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking vial, Paris Air, 1919. The enigmatic spheres, set on streets and open spaces in and around Kyiv, are hauntingly beautiful in their pure minimalism. The old-fashioned green glass jars, banded with metal strips, of the precisely documented Conservation of the Mist, represent an equally mysterious idea, though in terms so slight, ephemeral and elegiac that they are virtually transcendental.

Struck by the early-morning mist rising in rural areas around Kyiv, Zhuravel literally captured the effect, using the simplest methodology but hinting at a joyous alchemical process. A series of still images shows him wading into the Psel River near Mohrytsia, setting stakes in the water and placing on each an inverted jar. The fleeting nature of the effort is underlined by the images, blurred by mist as the artist goes about his quixotic business of trying to trap the rising mist in a jar. Later, once-hazy jars offer the truth: filled only with droplets of water, they could not preserve nature’s everyday miracles—nothing, that is to say, could stop time and natural forces. They could only, in a wistfully workmanlike way, refer to the existence of such amazing recurring events, to show and revere them.

Just so does Zhuravel approach the concept of collaborating directly with those forces in the large Beehive Sketch of 2003, a scroll-like document on which tea- and wine-stained areas illuminate ink sketches that trace such essential elements as the hive itself, with its peaked, tipped dome and organic form. Bees swarm in one section of the composition, apparently perceiving the incomplete hive, and in others they approach and, finally, enter the hive. The study, with its overlapping and idiosyncratically placed versions of the hive, glows with honey-gold washes whose sources—tea leaves and grapes—again underline man’s dependence on a balance with nature.

Even more revealing is Apiary Transformed, a 2003 oil-on-canvas painting whose panels capture the organized frenzy of the hive as it is inhabited, and the hard-working bees begin their constant work. Hazy, loosely worked areas of blue, white, red and dripping yellow almost obscure the orderly arrangement of the eventual hive, a grid that Zhuravel showed in his preliminary drawings, and then made far more prominent in such large, luminous works as the mixed-media piece, Frame No. 1 from the Cycle Apiary and Frame No. 2 from the Cycle Apiary.

In these paintings, as in other variants of the project that through some ancient alchemy appear to have been transformed from honey-filled grids into Ukrainian Icons, rich gold squares are set apart from one another, their surfaces stippled and dotted as if to indicate that each is filled with a slightly different pollen, a slightly different day’s work, than the others. The structures framing the gilded grids reveal the same scratched, scraped graffiti as the hive itself bears on the exterior. And, most intriguingly, four jars like those in Conservation of the Mist have been mounted in its upper registers, as if to introduce mists that surrounded the hive when it was filled with bees, a living part of the landscape.

The layers of meaning that reverberate beneath the surface of the Apiary Cycle, combined with Zhuravel’s delicate, calligraphic jottings in his studies and the vigorous illumination of the hive in his related grid series, find their fullest and richest expression, however, in the hive itself. A hollow bent cone that the artist sculpted from solid wood, true in their way to the principles Prokopovych expounded two centuries ago but tempered by modern times and the artist’s intent, it is large enough to encase a seated man. Its two wings were shaped to fit together, leaving open space and portals for the bees. But the key to the process were the honey-bloodred pigment that was allowed to flow over its pale, gessoed surface, highlighting such urgent details as the tiny raised arrow “bees” and the graffiti scratched into three thick ribs that appear to double as steps to a chimney on some primeval wall.

Remarkable as sculpture, Apiary transcends its process, documentation and related works to become what Zhuravel intended in an ongoing series of works that draw on a singular symbol, the bee in its community and both, in turn, in harmony with nature. Zhuravel’s ambitious project thus becomes a truly remarkable, living, peaceable image of nothing less than a visionary utopia.

Dr. Sam Hunter
Emeritus Professor of Art History, Princeton University