Abeille Abbaye


The environmental threats faced by the world’s bee populations is the inspiration for the latest major exhibition by Distinguished Professor Anne Noble.

This European summer, in an austerely elegant former Cistercian monastery in the Dordogne, Distinguished Professor Anne Noble made one of her most audacious works yet. It involved a colony of bees, a cabinet of curiosities, recordings of the singing of bees, a suite of large prints of the wings of dead bees and a beekeeper’s suit inspired by a Bruegel drawing.

The project, Abeille (the French word for bee), equalled in ambition Noble’s major body of work drawn from her frequent visits to Antarctica.

The installation, created for Abbaye de Noirlac, induced in many viewers a gasp of astonishment and then an emotional response that art writer Mark Amery has described as a “hush”. But that hush did not last for long. The artist has a message—and it became rapidly evident.

Incontrovertible proof

If her Antarctic photos were Noble’s contribution to the pressing debate about climate change and the exploitation of our last wild places, then her current focus on bees, both at Noirlac and elsewhere, carries the same urgency. Noble says the failure of bee populations, either because of the effects of nicotinoid-based pesticide use, mite attacks on hives, the pernicious impact of monoculture crop-growing and the loss of biodiverse habitats, is more incontrovertible proof of the mess the planet is in. And it’s potentially fatal to humanity: without the pollination benefits of bees our crops will fail.

All this informed Noble’s thinking about bees when she took up beekeeping five years ago. Since then, and beginning with work made while on a Fulbright Scholar Award at Columbia College in Chicago, she has made a remarkable suite of work focused on bees. The nine large panels at Noirlac, for example, ranged in size from 1.5 to 3.5m and spanned the length of a corridor in the monastery, outside what were once the monks’ cells.

Elegaic evocations forecasting the loss of a species, they are photograms made with the wings of dead bees collected from Chicago beekeepers whose colonies had died from a range of causes, most likely a mix of pathogens, parasites, pesticides or starvation. Noble plucked the wings from these bees and laid hundreds of them onto film that she then re-rolled and exposed while holding it in her hands, turning her body into a camera.

To realise that there is so much complexity in the minutiae of the world, and that no single way of seeing can give us anywhere near the richness of understanding we need, creates a new imperative for art on its own terms.


Critical role of the artist

Her work with bees over the past three years is a considerable artistic achievement in itself, but Noble’s ambitions for it range far wider. At the heart of it is her vision of the valuable and critical role that the artist can play in society’s major debates, and her belief in the value of connections that artists can make with scientists—and the benefits to both when they do.

Noble has written about the early Enlightenment era, when mystery and magic were not divorced, as they are now, from scientific investigation, observing that humanity’s psychic connection with the planet’s biological systems must be restored if we are to extract ourselves from environmental degradation and disaster.

“Rather than being lords over the environment, we are part of it, while maintaining a frail capacity to see and understand its complexity,” Noble says.

She sees the role of the artist as being as important to society as that of the scientist. Each can complement and amplify the work of the other. As she has noted, “We have placed such confidence in the rational processes of observation, measurement and thought. To realise that there is so much complexity in the minutiae of the world, and that no single way of seeing can give us anywhere near the richness of understanding we need, creates a new imperative for art on its own terms.

“Like science, art experiments and measures, although measurement for art has a different meaning altogether, more to do with the tenor of feeling, with the sensibility of the psyche and the formation of cultural consciousness.”

Abeille was on display at Noirlac until November 2016 but Noble plans to show it at other sites, including New Zealand.

While some of the works in Abeille focus on death, and suggest the possibility of a future without bees, the installation also sets out to engage audiences through a close sensory encounter with a complex living system.

Cabinet of curiosities

The cabinet of curiosities at the heart of the exhibition—a reference to 18th-century cabinets of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, and also to the form of the medieval triptych—contains a live colony of bees. When closed, it is a mysteriously beautiful silent object; the bees can be seen entering and exiting to the gardens outside. Its four exterior panels display portraits of bees, made with an electron-scanning microscope; central to each image is the bee’s compound eye.

Rather than formal exhibition openings, each day there are three openings of the cabinet, when the public is invited to observe the colony and participate in a facilitated conversation with a living system by guides, artists, scientists or beekeepers. Noble regards this as “activation” of the work.

Collaboration sits at the heart of many of Noble’s current projects. She worked with physicist and beekeeper Jean-Pierre Martin in his electron-scanning microscope laboratory and with New Zealand musician Haydon Chisholm to create the soundtracks for the videos in the Abeille exhibition.


Power of citizen science

She is working with both Martin and Massey University’s Associate Professor Tracy Riley on a pilot project for New Zealand schools that will combine both art and science in exploratory observational and communication projects about bees. Her nascent work with schools is part of her belief in the power of citizen science in restoring our living systems to a state of balance.

She is also working on a legacy project for the Allan Wilson Centre for Evolutionary Genetics, looking at how our understanding of “the portrait” changes in the light of the recent scientific findings about mitochondrial DNA.

Noble’s photographs fuse a tool, the camera—created in the 19th century by science and industry as a viewing device that, she says, “was once thought of as a means to reveal the world as an aid to the certainty of science”—with the sensibility of the artist to create images and experiences that reference both scientific and poetic modes of seeing and understanding.

And they challenge that science while being fascinated by all it has to offer. As she has observed: “They are parallel but different ways to generate understandings of the world.”

Project details


  • Noirlac Abbey
  • Massey University
  • Anne Noble

Dates 2015 to 2016