A N N H O L Y O K E . O R G | A M E T H O D O L O G I C A L C A T A L O G U E O F W O R K S
26 | K E E P E R, Stabat soror
Three-part wall sculpture, 1997
Stained, varnished, and painted wood, with galvanized brass fittings
Each part 106 x 318 cm
With a total of ninety-nine movable panels, each 28 x 27 cm
Μέλισσα, the Ancient Greek word for honeybee, is said to derive from the name of the nymph to whom we owe our now untold millennia of apiculture. My sister Melissa, the youngest of us three girls, was named for her as well. At the age of forty-two, she died a harrowing death, having lived just one year for each day of the worker bee’s fleeting and proverbially busy life. We had spent her last six weeks together, and afterwards I looked to find a way back into my life by planning and executing KEEPER. A material expression of grief and grieving, this wall sculpture is the work of mine I see as the most direct expression of my self.
The piece itself, whose formal language springs entirely from the world of bee-keeping and research, comprises three large wooden wall panels with a total of 99 movable parts. Initially, I had meant to call it STAND, as Bienenstand is a German word for “apiary,” and I wished to conjure the beekeeper’s colorful wooden hive boxes familiar from summer fields and gardens, while underscoring the new piece’s affinity to the earlier SET—which is also made of wood and has numerous movable parts to be manipulated by the viewer. But after living with the finished piece on the walls of my workroom for twelve months—a year in which my father’s dying came to its laborious conclusion—I found that the matter-of-fact title STAND no longer did justice to the spirit, or rather the heart, of the piece, and I renamed it KEEPER. I have, however, appended the Latin subtitle Stabat soror to the simple title KEEPER, so that the ur-title does not completely vanish from the whole—if only in a somewhat roundabout fashion.
Like the syntactically more equivocal, if bilingually intelligible, Stand/stand, the word I chose as the work’s new name is meant to call beekeepers and their apiaries to mind, just as it is intended to recall Cain’s disingenuous rejoinder “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A “keeper“ is, of course, anyone who guards or watches—among other things, a goal—as well as someone who adheres or conforms to requirements or beliefs. But analogous to “loaner,” for something one has loaned or borrowed, the word is also an idiomatic expression almost too variously designating something that one definitely intends not to discard, edibles that last well, or a fish large or mature enough not to be thrown back into the water when found among the catch. Lastly, I find in the word strong echoes of the gate-keeping responsibilities Holden Caulfield ascribes to “the catcher in the rye” in J.D. Salinger’s book.
Schematic drawings of the distribution of KEEPER I–III’s 99 numbered boards,
arranged in ascending order from 1, in the lower left-hand corner, to 99, in the upper right-hand corner.
The work itself consists of three large wooden wall panels, each measuring 106 x 318 centimeters—this includes a frame, four centimeters wide and deep—which have been stained white and given a light varnish. On each of them, hinge-mounted in three horizontal rows of eleven, hang thirty-three small, almost-square boards measuring 28 x 27 centimeters apiece: the dimensions of a movable comb frame of the Neu-Württemberger variety. In a beekeeper’s hive box, such wooden frames hang parallel to one another, providing the bees with structures to which they can affix their combs. To assure that these frames can be removed to be inspected and harvested, the distance between them—as well as between them and the sides of the enclosing box—must correspond to the so-called “bee space,” a gap measuring between five and eight millimeters: wide enough, that is, for the bees to pass through, but not so narrow that they will fill it with comb and immobilize the frames. I used this measurement to determine the horizontal distance between the small boards of KEEPER, whereas the vertical distance between rows was borrowed from a diagram found in a German handbook on hive construction.
Like the wall panels, the individual small boards have been stained white and lightly varnished. On them, variously stained squares of veneer-like plywood, whose evocative woodgrain markings produce a marbleized effect, have been mounted according to the system explained directly below. The overall composition of hinged boards suggests associations with the shallow stone recesses of Roman loculi, or niche graves.
KEEPER III with its number boards 67 (lower left) through 99 (upper right).
The pattern of squares on each of these wooden “lids” or “flaps” represents a number from 1 to 99, rendered according to a system based on that developed, in 1923, by Karl von Frisch, the Austrian biologist who, half a century later, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in recognition of his work on the individual and social behavior patterns of bees. Worker bees do indeed bear a striking resemblance to one another, but by employing this system, he was able to keep track of the bee populations he trained and observed. The ingenuity he and his collaborators demonstrated in the invention of elaborate, yet unambiguous, experiments and field trials involving these tiny animals is described on great detail in Tanzsprache und Orientierung der Bienen (published in English as “The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees”), von Frisch’s compilation of his decades of research on seemingly every aspect of the honeybee’s life and work. It makes for fascinating reading, as one begins to comprehend how he and his colleagues made sense of the honeybees’ faculties for orientation and communication by deciphering the their comings and goings, dances and doings.
To number his test animals, von Frisch applied tiny dots of alcohol-based paint in five colors to different positions on the animals’ thoraces and abdomens. White dots stood for the digits 1 and 6; red for 2 and 7; blue for 3and 8; yellow for 4 and 9; green for 5 and 0. The bees numbered 1 to 5 each received one dot of color to the front of their thoraces, close to their heads; numbers 6 to 10 each received one of the same five colors lower down, towards their abdomens. Two digit numbers were expressed with two dots on the thorax: a “digit-dot” applied to the right-hand side is considered to be in ones position, that is, one reads the five colors in the uppermost right-hand position as the numbers 1 through 5 and in the lower right-hand position as 6 through 9, and the digit 0; whereas, if on the left-hand side, they are considered to be in the tens position, and read as 10 through 50 above, as 60 through 90 below. Applied to an insect’s abdomen, the five colors denoted hundreds one to five. In this manner, von Frisch could mark his bees with numbers ranging from 1 to 599.
In KEEPER, I reduced this scheme to a grid of four plywood squares on each of the 99 hinged wooden “portals,” But instead of using von Frisch’s five vibrant colors [cf. C, below], I chose five wood stains whose shades are reminiscent of various sorts of honey made from the pollen and nectar of different kinds of blossoms. I treated 189 squares of model-airplane plywood (each of them 14 x 13.5 centimeters) with these five stains, and then, following the guidelines above, affixed them to the small, white- stained and varnished panels to express the numbers 1 through 99. I attached the completed “number boards” to the three 106 x 318 cm supporting panels with brass hinges hinges. Counting begins on panel I, in the lower left-hand corner, and proceeds, panel for panel, all the way through to number board 99, in the upper right-hand corner of panel II—in much the same way as the apiarist numbers and arranges the different hives in his bee house, row by row, from left to right and bottom to top.
Above: Group I of the concealed figures (upper row) and group II (lower row.)
Below: Boards number 6 (below) and 18 (above) raised to reveal the figures concealed behind them.
In KEEPER, this graphical numbering system devised to transport information is counterpointed by eight geometrical figures, divided into two groups: in the one, a solid circle, a solid square, a solid triangle, and a slash; and in the other, an equiangular Y-shape, an equilateral diamond contour, four parallel upright lines, and an X-shaped diagonal cross (a St. Andrew’s Cross, or saltire—a word based on the Latin word saltare, “to dance”). They have no inherent meaning per se, yet nonetheless make sense. For, as von Frisch tells us, the four shapes within each group cannot be told apart by the bees, whereas their eyes do perceive a difference between each figure of one group and every figure of the other.
Schematic drawings of the distribution of the geometric figures concealed behind KEEPER I–III’s 99 numbered boards,
arranged in ascending order from 1, in the lower left-hand corner, to 99, in the upper right-hand corner.
One of these figures—which have all been cut out of the same thin plywood material as the numbering squares on their fronts and painted black—is mounted behind each of KEEPER’s brass-hinged “lids,” on the white-stained supporting panel. Figures belonging to the same group occur diagonally and those belonging to different groups behind boards at right angles to one another. The cycle of eight signs behind the boards recurs over a dozen times, in ever the same order: a regularity that is in natural opposition to the rhythms produced by the patterns of and on the small, hinged boards. These are based on the numbers ten (as far as our decimal numeral system and the patterns that develop out of it in the piece are concerned) and eleven (determinate as an organizational device regarding the boards’ distribution in nine rows, as well as in deference to the eleven-year sunspot cycle).
The number three is common to both fore- and backgrounds, however, their systems stand in such different relationships to the fact of three as a denominator that the viewer finds himself unable to appreciate this commonality at close range. He confronts the three large panels hanging side by side—each with its three rows of patterned squares and hidden symbols—by lifting one small panel after another and uncovering the black ciphers they conceal; then, one by one, letting them drop again—not unlike the beekeeper, checking the populations and conditions in his colonies’ individual comb-frames. If at all, KEEPER’s conundrum can be unravelled only at some remove: as the viewer regards the super-ordinate patterns of squares that shift and eddy across its panels’ surfaces, and allows the sequence of its covert figures to pass review before his mind’s eye.
Light can behave as both particle and wave. Jacob wrestled with a being that was at once a man, an angel, and the face of God, to whom he gave the same name as the place where they had met and he was wounded laying bare the truth. KEEPER manifests itself as sign and signal; number and form; workplace, crypt, and plaything.