LONDON — It was a steamy day in August when I spotted what resembled a distant cloud of swarming bees, hovering over Kew Gardens. Looking back, it seems more like it was a mirage, shimmering in the light, its form constantly shifting, resolving and dissolving.
It was in fact “The Hive,” an installation designed by Wolfgang Buttress in an effort to amplify public awareness of the critical situation of bees. When I rounded one last cluster of trees and finally saw it full on, I was even more bemused — by an intricate network of lattices, taking the form of a rough cube and rising some 40 feet into the air above a slope clad in wildflowers.
Originally created for the Milan Expo 2015, “The Hive” debuted at the Royal Botanic Gardens in June to acclaim, not only as a spectacle but also as an elusively engaging experience, a multisensory environment that might be compared to Olafur Eliasson’s works. In addition to the visual engagement of its subtle geometry, “The Hive” — for which Buttress collaborated with Simmonds Studio designers, physicist Martin Bencsik, and BDP structural and environmental engineers, among others — uses light and sound to immerse visitors in the world of the honeybee and its cousins.
I decided to approach slowly and gradually, entering an area dug into the hillside where the structure could be viewed from below. There were several people below the stilt-supported cube, most of them looking up through the transparent floor. Others listened intently as a docent talked about the sounds that bees make. She said there was a nearby site in the garden where protected hives of honeybees were kept, where would-be queens piped, tooted, and quacked in competition with one another. The collective energy generated by those bees was translated into tones that could be experienced as music in the space overhead.
But to hear the actual sounds, visitors were instructed to do something that would have seemed strange no matter whether we were in an artistic situation or not. We were told to walk over to one of the tall, slender white cylinders stationed around the space and take a long, thin strip of wood from a dispenser at the top. We were then meant to place one end into one of several small slots in the cylinder’s side and firmly clench the other end with our teeth, while cupping our hands over our ears.
Hesitant, I looked around to see what other visitors were doing. I saw men, women, and children in small, spoke-like clusters around cylindrical hubs. At first their expressions were simply intent, as they concentrated on following instructions. Then concentration gave way to wonder and delight. I followed suit and was rewarded. Filling my head were the sounds of restless bees, heard not through my ears but seemingly from within my own head, which had been turned into a kind of auditorium.
This alone seemed so wondrous — especially when I closed my eyes — that I wasn’t sure how much more “The Hive” might offer. Still, I wandered up to the next space, climbing a series of low, broad steps set into the hillside. At the top was a patio of sorts, bordered on one side by a ledge where people sat to look around, talk, tend to children, and generally take a break. A narrow bridge connected this area to the main, trellis-like structure.
The space within the aluminum trellis was spherical, a geometric contrast to the cubic exterior. The aluminum bars that created the curving interior were studded with LED lights, which were glowing dimly when I visited. I understood that the most charismatic experience of the structure would be at dusk, when the softly colored lights were more visible, creating the sense of a luminous sphere inside of a lacy cube. Still, I was content to be there at the time that I was.
Apparently so were other visitors, the youngest of whom mostly flung themselves onto the clear floor to look down at the people in the space below. Or they laid on their backs to view the oculus above. Even more than the structure’s aesthetics, I was captivated by this low-key spectacle of human delight.
We were told that nearly 170,000 identical, zigzagging cast aluminum bars had been assembled to create the honeycomb-like structure of “The Hive.” I tried tracing their paths, to get a sense of how the parts intersected. When that proved impossible, I let myself be caught up in their effectively endless conjoining. Given that the structure is based on a Fibonacci spiral, it seemed pointless to attempt any accounting.
Of course, the main purpose of “The Hive” is expanding awareness of the critical state of bee populations. After years of being painfully aware of the plight of bees, I must admit I found myself ignoring that issue and indulging in a purely phenomenological experience.
One science writer, having duly attended to the technical data, described her own encounter with “The Hive” in terms of meditative communion. Reporting for The New Scientist, Shaoni Bhattacharya referred to “The Hive” as “a beautiful, geometric meshwork.” If a scientist can succumb to beauty, I decided, then why shouldn’t an art critic take joy.
“The Hive” is on view at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AB), until November 2017.