Critical Distance

still life: Aganetha Dyck and Karen Thornton
March 24 – April 18, 1995

a response to the exhibition by Doug Melnyk

“It’s so sexy!” Aganetha said to me, on a day that I had a long conversation with her in her studio, speaking at this point about the massive body of honeybees she had encountered in their hive.

“Did you ever touch them? You can put your hand inside the hive, gently, if you’re careful. Don’t make any fast movements or do anything reckless. You just put your hand down very slowly and gently, until it’s on top of the surface of their backs. Oh my, it’s so warm. And of course, it feels furry. It’s warm and so furry, and it’s just pulsing with life. It just throbs!”

Aganetha’s relationship with bees, after years of reading about them and working directly with bees and professional beekeepers, is a very complex relationship.

She talked about observing the bees rejecting certain materials that she had introduced to the hive, hoping that the bees would build upon these surfaces. It seemed that all animal-based materials, such as wool or silk, would probably be rejected, possibly because the bees would be concerned about an actual living animal presence within the hive ( a rat or mouse, a very real threat to the life of the hive.) But Aganetha hinted that, for her, it was problematic to assume any real knowledge of the workings of the apian mind.

“I know some of the things that they like and dislike. If you put something into the hive that they don’t like, they won’t build on it. They might push it out of the hive, if they can. but I don’t know what they’re thinking of.”

“People all over the world work with bees.” We were looking in her books at pictures of many different kinds of beehives that people have built. “And beekeepers always seem to do things with bees that have nothing to do with harvesting honey, doing creative things, out of pleasure or curiosity.”

She mentioned working with Gary Hooper, a beekeeper and teacher of English literature. He had managed to get bees to produce text, a 3-D logo for ‘Bee-Maid Honey’ constructed out of honeycomb. Aganetha also mentioned a beekeeper working out of Arizona, who regularly encouraged his bees to produce a map or outline of the American State.

“And people have always been inspired by bees. Did you know that Napoleon had a picture of a bee stitched into the inside lining of all his trousers? It was his personal symbol. He wanted to be like the bees, to accomplish great things.”

To me, Aganetha seems to be a mentor to the honeybees. she encourages them to work on her projects, but usually without specific direction. It seems to be a reflection of her mature age, her flexible personal philosophy, and possibly the result of her years of experience as a working artist in the Artist in the Schools program. a project of the Manitoba Arts Council.

Her contribution to the two-person exhibition still life – curated by Sigrid Dahle, combining Aganetha¹s work with Karen Thornton – embraces input, not just by the honeybees and beekeepers, but also by her husband, Peter, ( who devised the precise design for hanging the “Hive Blankets” in the gallery space) and her son, Richard (who assisted in the installation and lighting of the exhibition.) Additionally, Sigrid’s direct involvement in the physical layout of the exhibition contributed significantly to the finished character of the show. If you hold a generous personal definition of “collaboration” – as I do – a fluid sense of creative collaboration can definitely be felt in this situation.

Aganetha’s night watch is five small cloth pieces (approximately 18″ by 27″, usually denim) covered with honeycomb and a certain amount of honey. Apparently, many beekeepers, as a matter of course, place hive blankets at the top of the hive, just under the top lid, because it helps the bees to feel the hive is secure; otherwise, the bees make elaborate structures of honeycomb to achieve a similar effect of insulation, safety and privacy, squandering their precious energy. With the hive blankets, the bees create a restrained amount of honeycomb structure directly on the cloth surface, in varying, unpredictable patterns, and the insects are satisfied much sooner that all is well with the hive.

In Aganetha’s night watch, it is easy to see the subtle and surprisingly various handiwork of an industrious and healthy beehive. In the elegant and workmanlike installation of night watch in Ace Art’s gallery space, it’s satisfying to appreciate the impressive accomplishment of Peter Dyck. And likewise, the sleekly modern lighting treatment – Richard Dyck’s innovation – treating viewers to a theatrical and revealing, modern backlit approach, allowing us to examine the cloth and the honeycomb from either side. Sigrid Dahle’s notion of physical balance in the gallery space was exercised in consultation with both artists, allowing the works of both Aganetha and Karen to enjoy generous breathing space and a gentle interplay.

When I discovered that Karen Thornton had approached this exhibition – her first exhibition right of of art school – by tackling not only the design of her unique pedestals, the graphic concept for the exhibition’s invitation/postcard, and also the daunting prospect of dealing (sometimes solo) with a number of media interviews, I felt that issues of personal control in relation to notions of an artist’s practice and public presentation we’re pertinent ideas to consider in this particular situation, but ultimately, very difficult to pin down in any kind of satisfying way. Do artists handle these challenges so variously as a function of personal philosophy, generational differences, educational preparation, career strategizing,…what? More importantly, perhaps, how is the viewer affected by these subtexts in the preparation of the exhibition?

In still life, Karen exhibits an actual wooden rocking chair drilled carefully with countless holes until the entire structure resembles a giant piece of lace. On the specially designed pedestals, with built-in lighting, the tops echoing honey-comb shapes, a number of hen’s eggs are also on exhibit. These eggs, drilled in a fashion that echoes the chair, sometimes seem as if they are made more of light than of eggshell. Some have gone past the breaking point, and are presented in shards. In another piece, the skin of a hen, still sporting glamorous white feathers, has been shaped into an hourglass shape, reminiscent of an idealized human female form. It hangs from a clothes-hanger shaped device, fashioned from chicken leg and foot parts. The first piece the viewer encounters, however, is a large, metal nest lying on the gallery floor.

Talking about this latter piece, titled security, a nestlike structure composed of spiral-shaped metal drill shavings with an inner lining of smaller, more delicate and multi-coloured detritus, Karen remembered an early childhood experience shared with her father. They were in a gun shop and Karen was attracted to a pile of metal scraps and shavings because of the shininess and the iridescent colours. But her father forade her investigating this scrap material because he felt it was too dangerous and that, as a child, she wouldn’t be able to satisfy her curiosity without cutting herself.

This was in her mind as Karen worked on the piece, security, and she enjoyed the freedom of her present, adult status. She felt able to abandon herself totally to playing with the metal bits that she had discovered, discarded, on the University of Manitoba campus. Smilingly, she admitted that her hands and arms were thoroughly cut and scraped as a result of her sculptural activity, bending and weaving the various tiny pieces into the final, bird-inspired structure.

In Karen’s work, evidence of her activity is obvious everywhere. Much of the satisfaction many viewers have found in encountering this work (as they’ve reported to me) comes from their own detective work, in trying to figure out how she altered the organic and familiar materials toward a very specific end: for example, carving and shaping the pelt of a chicken to make it resemble a woman’s garment. For me, this image recalls the famous book cover of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (the skin of a woman’s nude torso hanging from a clothes hanger,) an image Karen says she is not aware of. However, Karen’s conceptual strategies are everywhere clearly evident, heavily underlined by her labour-intensive approaches; a lot of handiwork is required to make a dead chicken function as a metaphor for a largely feminist concern. Whether the viewer becomes more involved in the metaphorical messages presented or the formal treatment of materials seems to depend largely on the predilections of the particular viewer.

Karen’s personal philosophies, her formal tendencies, even her craft skills, are abundantly available to viewers of this exhibition, and in all her pieces I find evidence of a rigorously organized personality. The works that Aganetha has included present a sensuous, organic experience for the viewer – in a personal style that is familiar and easily recognizable to those already acquainted with her work – and a very open-ended opportunity for the interpretation of meaning in the work. By contrast with her partner in this exhibition, however, Aganetha seems to have decided to let her own presence recede somewhat, in deference to the honeybees she holds in such high esteem and to her other collaborators as well. One effect of this position, a position of real generosity, is that her presence as an author in relation to these works has become mysterious and surprisingly elusive.

Doug Melnyk is an artist and writer living in Winnipeg.