Along the Path of the Bee

A Unique Project by Mykola Zhuravel

The process of birth of an artifact is akin to the ripening of honey and its extraction from the honeycombs. In both cases we have an initial sketch, the gathering of material, prolonged, manystaged work on the realization of the design, and finally, the delivery of the end product to the eyes/lips of the consumer. It is only that an artist in his or her creative work more and more frequently has to combine two dissimilar roles—that of a bee and a beekeeper, nurtured and nurturer, the one who is led and the one who leads. In other words, one must be skilled in the practice of the craft, but also be ready to prove oneself in the flight of the imagination. Not just any creative artist is up to this task; only those for whom, as the eighteenth-century Ukrainian poet-philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda had said, “it is a much greater joy to gather honey than to eat it” (in the twenty-seventh of his Kharkiv Fables).

In the biography of the Ukrainian artist Mykola Zhuravel the above is not a mere metaphor. Both his father, and his father’s father, and the whole chain of his ancestors were hereditary beekeepers, from whom their descendant inherited not the trade itself, but first and foremost a painstakingly thorough approach to the source material. This material, by the way, is not that different from that of craftsmanship. In painting, in particular in medieval icon painting, one of the mandatory ingredients was a primer known in the Eastern Slav lands as levkas (from the Greek leukos), whose texture resembles that of beeswax, one of the products of beekeeping. (Jumping ahead, let us remark that among our artist’s innovations was the use of archaic techniques in modern secular art, in particular, in easel painting.)

In Ukraine, beekeeping used to be treated with no lesser reverence than the visual arts. The former had several spiritual patrons, from St. John Chrysostom, whose legendary eloquence was compared to the taste of honey, to St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and one of the greatest fathers of early Christianity, affectionately referred to in a poem by Lazar Baranovych, a prominent Baroque-era

Ukrainian writer:

Here comes Ambrose with a beehive,

He is never miserly in treating guests to honey.

The arrival of bees marks the true beginning of spring, nature’s awakening (the time when Zhuravel’s apiary is being created and these lines are being written). Another Baroque-era Ukrainian author, Ivan Maksymovych, developed this theme in his “Ode to the First of May, 1761.” In his time beekeeping was still in its primitive stage, and beehives were made by hollowing out wooden logs; however, in the century that followed Petro Prokopovych, a Ukrainian landowner from the Chernihiv area, invented a new frame-based type of beehive, creating a small-scale coup in this trade, so that by 1910 the number of bee colonies in Ukraine would reach 1.6 million (most of them later perished during World War II). A century and a half later, learning about this fact stunned the artist, our contemporary, and inspired him to conceive his Apiary project; its first sketches date back to the year 1997, now separated from us by the century and the millennial divide.

One cannot unequivocally assert that the artist’s inspiration came entirely from history, or from tales of the days of yore. In contemporary artistic culture bees signify a far more complex and ambivalent concept than during the Baroque era (for all the diversity of the meanings of the bee then, most of them end up as synonymous to each other—virtue, mercy, the sweetness of God’s creation, following the path of grace). Although less frequently than wasps, flies, or even birds, bees came also to symbolize a sinister threat (still, a few marginal horror movies do not create a trend). Nevertheless, the sediment of ancient wisdom, the good-natured beliefs of the ancestors are ineradicable; hence to this day bees are more frequently associated with meditation and wise wandering (consider The Beekeeper, a 1986 film by Theo Angelopoulos). Alternatively, bees can be associated with a special kind of wisdom that can be experienced only through touch, in a fragmentary fashion, due to its incongruence to the human world—this is what Joseph Beuys did in his performance work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, undertaken in Dusseldorf in 1965; Beuys also developed this vision in his Queen Bee series and other projects.

Mykola Zhuravel created his project not so much with a look back to the experience of the nowclassic German artist, but with a calm comprehension of the otherness of his chosen path. Ukraine as a nation is strongly marked by a patriarchal agrarian element; it would be useless to ascribe to it any technocratic excesses. Ukraine is definitely not Russia, but it also isn’t Japan or Sweden. But perhaps in this rethinking, both reverent and daring, of forefathers’ recipes, it will find its make-or-break chance, both in art and in life? And what if the first step in this direction were to be taken by an artist?

At this bend in the stream of modern chaos, he hungers not for postmodernist irony, but for a complex synthesis and for a taut, painstakingly created harmony. “This project for me bears the features of self indentification,” says the artist. “People are like bees . . . The apiary is Ukraine.”

To begin with, the creative act itself (whose genealogy includes Spherography and Aggressive Beekeeping, as well as other earlier large-scale works, including an artistic happening on one of the hills of the city of Kyiv, whose essence was a protest against Russian aggression in Chechnya) was preceded by lengthy travels by Zhuravel through many towns and villages of his native country, from east to west and from north to south. Already in his purely painterly works he displayed an inclination toward planetary thinking; now he had a chance to visit Dubno, Kam’ianets-Podilsky, Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, Khortytsia, Sorochyntsi, Pereiaslav, Kaniv, Sumy (all in all more than a dozen places that carry high symbolism in Ukrainian history, that enjoy a weighty presence in the national memory, triggering reminiscences about the literary greats Gogol and Shevchenko, or about the times of Cossack glory). In some places he literally soared into the skies, as he did over the rocks of Bakhchisarai in a glider.

Zhuravel’s beehives, numbering about eight or nine, are both more and less than ordinary beehives. Their pragmatic intended use is subjugated to the authorial intention, but is not suppressed altogether: colonies of bees are indeed released into them, to live, to hum, to bring sweet trophys into their strange dwellings. The voluntary character of the behavior of the winged wards, here turned into inescapably anonymous co-creators, is taken into account. Upon the completion of their mission, they will yield to their human “elder brothers” literally “the honey and fragrance of all of Ukraine” and be resettled into ordinary beehives. The artist, in turn, will present the beehive artifacts to the public in an opened state, revealing the ribs of their frames.

On the outside, the beehives look like something halfway between pagan sculpture and a centrifuge for endurance testing, between a blown up walnut and a children’s slide. Simultaneously extraterrestrial and very familiar, close to the essence of man and yet mysterious—and open to cognition. Each of them is shaped in a unique way, externally as well as internally, the latter aspect providing the rhythm of the bees’ labor. Taken in its entirety, the genre of this artwork oscillates between land art, an extended theater performance, and traditional three-dimensional sculpture. The priority probably will be given to the latter, but the very being of this artifact is fine-tuned by the intonations of an extended performance and of “land art,” or, if you wish, “earth art.” Earth nurtures, heaven lulls, art grants an unusual grace to the outlines. And interprets it following the path of the bee, whose meaning, for the philosopher Skovoroda, was “the coat of arms of a wise man, toiling in essential labor.”

Oleh Sydor-Hibelynda

Senior Research Associate, Contemporary Art Research Institute,

National Academy of Visual Art and Architecture, Kyiv, Ukraine