Beehive – structure of human nature, performance, duo exhibition with Merlyn Spie, PROPS, Ghent, 2017
Beehive - structure of human nature; by Yannice De Bruyn
Hot tallow from the beeswax candle drips over her hand and onto the floor. The soft trickle melts into the sound of footsteps as Johanna Van Overmeir moves around the room. Although precise and apace, her steady gait is not devoid of ceremony. Warming up the space she inaugurates the next phase of the performance: in the course of seven days the artist coats the windows with honey and imprints the resulting glaze with a grid of fingerprints. Each day, the performance begins and ends with her crouching at a wooden suitcase in the centre of the room, where she logs the duration and nature of her actions. Like a miniature laboratory, or an altar, it also accommodates several honey jars, candles and a matchbox, a bottle of water, towels, and a bowl Van Overmeir washes her hands in at the end of each performance. This honey water is collected in a bucket. On the seventh day, after completing the grid on all the windows, the artist immerses her face in the bucket. She is now ready for the last phase of the performance, where she sits down on a chair, blindfolds herself, and puts a bowl of honey into her lap. Some visitors dip their finger in the honey and press it onto the window. After several more minutes, the performance ends.
Upon entering the space, a change in atmosphere is felt before it is known, as if the air is somehow dilated by the artist’s intense concentration at rhythmically pressing her finger onto the glass. Perhaps we become aware of it through the viscid sound of this action, or through the white light entering the room through a honey filter. It is at once mesmerising and discomforting. Absorbed by her work, Van Overmeir is remote even at minimum distance, and her closeness is as appealing as her withdrawal is challenging. The onlooker’s relation to the artist eludes the reference frame of social convention, questioning our position. This is a recurrent motive in Van Overmeir’s oeuvre. With her body as a medium, she pursues an equilibrium between closeness and closure in every performance. Her work engages its audience while simultaneously obstructing any exchange, a strategy symbolised by the blurred, anointed windows. The final sequence of Beehive – structure of human nature is exemplary. When the attendees are invited to complement the performance by leaving their own trace on the honeyed window, Johanna has blindfolded herself. She cannot retreat in occupation anymore, yet she seals herself off in a different manner. For the duration of the performance, Van Overmeir is not present as herself but becomes her own objet d’art.
In Beehive, this conceptual choice is also motivated by the performance’s inspiration by the world of bees. The honey bee is known for living in colonies populated mostly by worker bees. From time immemorial the beehive has provided human society with an ideal model, representing all manner of virtues such as order and industry, selflessness and cooperation. Whereas humans tend to overburden their environment, bees’ products advance the natural cycle. This antithesis is especially pertinent at a time in which humanity threatens to self-destruct by exhausting, precisely, the bees. The artist’s attention for the interrelatedness of mankind and nature is reflected by the subtitle structure of human nature. This refers back to its namesake, an earlier performance in which she bit off pieces of apples and arranged the half-chewed chunks in a grid for birds and insects to consume. Van Overmeir’s fascination with the beehive is also founded in the given that every single bee dedicates itself to the colony, regardless of its own concern. One could say that Beehive is research into the role of human identity and ego. By pressing her finger onto the window, the artist seems to manifest her identity in the room countless times, but whereas its singularity makes the fingerprint into a symbol of identity, its uniqueness disappears in the grid. Instead of exhibiting a persona, the serial gesture dedicates the individual to the collective, as much as the worker bee merges into the uniform bee community. The pattern thus created on the windows makes for a kind of cocoon, a man-made beehive that encloses us all. This formal analogy is continued until the smallest component, each individual fingerprint’s swirl bearing resemblance to a beehive seen from above. We have come full circle.
Beehive – structure of human nature was performed at the PROPS multidisciplinary art space in Ghent, Belgium from February 26th to March 5th 2017. Van Overmeir’s performance took place in concert with the exhibition of art works and performance residues by Merlin Spie.