We are the bees of the Invisible
Gabriela Oberkofler derives the material for her rich detailed drawings, her objects, installations and videos first and foremost from nature. A sheep by the fence, a horse, bleeding from the muzzle, a horse cut in half, the legs of deer, wolf, cat, dog. Her interest is also focused on birds, as well as everything which turns green, comes into bloom and perishes once more: a young shoot, a twig, a heap of seeds, a fallen tree with monstrous forms. Pursuing her daily work of drawing in the studio, she leaves the space around each individual motif on the paper quadrangles empty, thus allowing a remarkably large area of the paper white to function free for itself. In essence everything which Gabriela Oberkofler draws or presents as an installation in the exhibition space remains a fragment. She dispenses with coherent narrative and every form of idyllic idealisation. It is the moments of loss, or being endangered and alienation which become palpable in her works instead.
There are many motifs which help us to surmise that she is an artist of South Tyrolean origin, but more concrete details about place, times of day or the season elude decipherment. Visual motifs such as the window, the bench, the balcony, the drinking trough or the geraniums continue to be baffling emblems instead, summoning a nervousness of spirit in the eyes of the beholder willing to fantasise upon the missing context. Deshalb nur halb (mit Bett) [This is why only half (with a bed)], 2016 – the title of an installation in the so-called Herrenzimmer (men’s study) in the City Gallery in Delmenhorst, Haus Coburg – assumes a programmatic character within this context (see p. 42).
From the very beginning Gabriela Oberkofler has bestowed considerable attention upon insects, thus addressing in essence our everyday life: for insects are our balcony guests, they sit on our cake slices, they live in our cupboards, they sleep and travel with us, but always have a tarnished image nevertheless. Their dodgy character, their love of begetting and their dispassionate involvement in death – the decompositional process for everything living – all awaken our profound mistrust.
Gabriela Oberkofler observes all manner of insects and creepy-crawlies with immense fascination and attentiveness. She observes them in their natural habitat, and she collects dead specimens: small, perfectly constructed creatures, ossified in fragile, opalescent jewels, which allow a strange and distant world to flash through our minds. The affirmation of life and of death lie close together in the thought and creative praxis of the artist. She pays tribute to these anonymous beauties in her drawings. In her installations, beetles, moths, butterflies or bluebottles are given a stage role which can be an occasion for intense concentration and even reverence on the part of the sensitive viewer. And last but not least the artist comes back to focus on the bee, again and again. A magnificent carpenter bee occupies an important place in her large collection, she draws bumble bees, buff-tailed bumble bees, and honeybees in diverse formations or else solitary on blossoms; each one of these sheets is the embodiment of a delicate homage.
In the large upright format drawing on paper entitled Bienenschwarm (Bee swarm) from 2012 Gabriela Oberkofler’s passionate artistic confrontation with bees becomes a masterpiece (see pp. 79 – 80). That which is sitting in the middle of the sheet appears at first to be a clumsy monster, bursting out. Black and red dominate, between them is yellow, a little green and violet. It is only when viewed from close up that the entity turns out to be a seething swarm of thousands upon thousands of whirring creatures. For a moment the association may materialise that the draftswoman has captured teeming life in an experiment on a microscopic slide after having glanced through the lens, and in another aspect it seems that one can hear the buzzing and the humming of the never-fatigued: they zoom about, they circle, crawl, claw, wag their tails and dance. Now they ascend, now they roar up, then they glide and dive down, plummeting, breaking up. The little torsi, the wings, the little legs, as if all minute parts of a moaning plant-like body, hang and flutter down. Such nebulous relations transform Gabriela Oberkofler’s Bienenschwarm (Bee swarm) into madcap tissue, spitting out sparks on its descent into hell. At the same time each of the separate forms, as well as the totality, are made up of a myriad of minute felt pen lines and dots. A linear definition of things in terms of the contoures, plays almost no role whatsoever, and so the Bienenschwarm (Bee swarm), like so many other visual motifs which the artist places in the vast expanses of her drawing sheets, frazzles off into the periphery, as if afflicted by consumption. The impression of transitoriness and instability arises; everything is in a state of dissolution.
The artist draws a swarm of bees which has left its dwelling, the beehive. This is a natural spectacle, often taking place in late springtime. A swarm follows the queen bee, stops for a pause on the way not far from the mother hive, whilst the so-called foraging or scout bees reconnoitre a suitable nesting hole. Considering this highly charged phase of the transition, the drawing emphasises that we should contemplate the German homonym “schwärmen”, meaning both to swarm and to be in raptures about something. Ultimately the collective exodus of the creatures, their agitation and arousal, provides us with a most vivid image for our concept of swarming. Someone who swarms is unswervingly focused and enraptured. If we consider the
obsessive mode of drawing with which Gabriela Oberkofler appropriates parts of nature, we can see her on the one had as an enraptured artist as well, quite involved in the swarm. Using the pen and the brush to think she has become one with her subject. On the other hand she evades the danger of an untenably idealized representation, because she interpolates dots, strokes and abbreviations between her perception of nature and an unbroken hand draughted code. On top of this she uses other media to devote her attention to her artistic object. In her double video projection entitled Bienenflug, Baum, rosa Blüte, Baum, weiße Blüte (Bees in flight, tree, pink bud, tree, white bud) (see pp. 44 – 48) from 2013 she employs two cameras from the viewpoint of the restless forager bees, in order to suggest a change in the role of these nectar and pollen collecting creatures. Bienenflug is an attempt to escape from our anthropocentric view of the world. The observer dives into a white and pink tinted land of milk and honey. However the nervous back and forth of the camera, the wobbles and panning shots, changing focuses and blurs, as well as the harsh rhythmic sound of the bees, cause this paradise to seem unexpectedly gruelling. The video work with the title Mr. Nobel, 2016, is a tranquil, wistfully soothing antipode to the previous work (see pp. 1 – 6). Here we can observe the nighttime way of life of an ageing hound deeply marked by life, but who nevertheless accomplishes his rounds with dignity and of course under cover of night. Exactly what he is perceiving and what drives him on, remains concealed. This will never be understood. Whereas Gabriela Oberkofler often immerses herself profoundly by way of extremely concentrated and delightfully detailed works in chosen pieces of nature, there are also chirurgically analytical works amidst her œuvre (see Latschenkiefer, 2016) and also works which stand alone as purely observational and filmic meditations, able to confront human beings, normally imprisoned within their fixed patterns of interpretation, face to face with the mystery of creaturely existence.
As far as bees are specially concerned, it would be feasible to write their history within art beginning at the cave paintings, tracing the development from the bees of the Barberini right up to Joseph Beuys or Rosemarie Trockel / Carsten Höller, Ren Ri or Pierre Huyghe. The same would apply in essence for a possible accompanying research into the history of human civilization: encompassing the organisation of bees into colonies, their precise worker activities as seminal geometricians in an architectonic whole, their orientation and communication, their genius as transformers, which ultimately allows honey to generate, and their threatened role in our ecosystem would all be examined and continually investigated. In spite of all of this a glimmer of mystery still remains, embodied in the ancient honey gatherers and in latter day beekeepers. These figures live on shrouded in myth.
The preparations for the Wind zog auf (Wind rose up) exhibition in the Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst (City Gallery) brought the beekeeper Uwe Roselieb into the project and in its turn the Bienenschwarm (Bee swarm) drawing, which had up until then merely been a subject of artistic contemplation, was transformed into a bugle call summoning, on completion of the classical exhibition visit in the gallery rooms, towards an exodus into the nearby Delmenhorst Graft Public Park. A satellite exhibition awaited the visitor here in the heart of this wonderful but threatened park area. Because of wrong decisions made by experts and politicians the ground water table in this municipal park has been rising since 2011. Reports of tree death reached the artist, already sensitized to contemporary afflictions of nature. The mural entitled Graft-Wasserstand (Graft water level), 2016 (see p. 33), the participatory conceived exhibition Aus der Graft (From the Graft), 2016 (see pp. 34 – 35) the drawing entitled Blätter (Leaves), 2016 (see pp. 66 – 69) all contributed within the context of the exhibition Wind zog auf (Wind rose up) to form a memorial in the gallery for the park ravaged by the drowning of approximately 1,000 trees.
Graced by the hour which had brought the bee expert and the artist together, a fruitful cooperation came about, resulting in an installation bearing the name of Roseliebschen Beuten (Roselieb hives) in honour of the beekeeper (see pp. 25 – 26, 38 – 39): this foresaw the sculptural creation of an allotment garden in the middle of the park also involving an actual production site for honey at the same time. The eight jet black clad beehives were aligned towards the sun in a semicircle arrangement, each one of them carrying an abundantly planted flower box on its roof. Emphasis was on a reduced clear concept, reminiscent of both experimentation sites and to the aesthetics of rudimentary settlement forms or archaic cult sites to equal degree. The cladding as well as the flower boxes had been carpentered from the dyed components of fruit boxes. A look at Gabriela Oberkofler’s work entitled Buggelkraxen (a humorous dialect word for rucksack, suggestive of hunch-
back-hiking) 2010 (see p. 30) illustrates that the use of such materials was not some wild decision of the artist. The wood used in these boxes, common to daily commercial practice, epitomizes the exhaustive exploitation of natural resources in our mercilessly standardised and globalized world. Time after time Gabriela Oberkofler has employed such boxes as a bewilderingly flexible building material, if nothing less to symbolise a small condensate piece of her homeland, reminiscent of her childhood village of Jenesien, which she carries in the last resort hunchback style throughout her restless travails amidst the circus of the international art system. The Roseliebschen Beuten (Roselieb hives) were also a place for resuscitation and resettlement within the banner of contemporary art, bringing to mind today’s urgent worldwide themes of forced migration, homeland and the stranger.
In the course of the exhibition Wind zog auf (Wind rose up) the busily flown in hives could be observed as perfectly human operated, highly productive power stations. These rather sinister looking housing blocks had very little to do with the familiar figures which have moulded our images of bees for generations, such as Maya the Bee (Die Biene Maja), or with Wilhelm Busch’s picture story Buzz a buzz; or, the bees (Schnurrdiburr oder die Bienen), the more so as the passionate beekeeper Wilhelm Busch deeply regretted the disappearance of the picturesque straw beehive. For him it was the symbol of the “old, dignified human head, where the ideas fly in and out.” 1 Nowadays beehives are made using box construction techniques. They narrate our striving for more efficiency in the production of honey, and the unusual jet black versions in the Delmenhorster installation unavoidably transformed the situation into a place for pondering the causes of bees dying out.2 At the same time the approach ramps in front of the entrance holes of each hive struck the eye because of their double function als ramps for the disposal of dead bees. Thus the Roseliebschen Beuten (Roselieb hives) became a place for mourning in a further sense. The artistic harvest brought home by Gabriela Oberkofler by the settlement of black boxes in the Delmenhorst Graft Park and with each of her breathtakingly detailed drawings, lies in the last analysis in their power to refer to what is essentially important. The point is to reveal what cannot normally be grasped by the eye. “We are the bees of the unseen”, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1925 in a letter to his polish translator Withold Hulewicz, intending to characterise therewith the artist in this special way. “We passionately gather the honey from the visible world, in order to horde it in the great golden beehive of the unseen.” 3
1 Wilhelm Buch, Umsäuselt von sumsenden Bienen. Schriften zur Imkerei (Encircled by buzzing bees. Writings on beekeeping) (Erstausgabe / First edition 1869), Göttingen, 2016, p. 40.
2 On the occasion of the finissage of Wind zog auf (Wind rose up) on 5th June 2016 the Bremen sound art duo Snijot’s Noise Seduction (Christian Bungies / Björn Burkandt) reacted to Roselieb’s hives with the sound piece entitled Palace of the Varroa. The Varroa mite (lat. varroa destructor) is believed to be the main cause of the worldwide occurrence of mass bee colony collapse.
3 Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe in zwei Bänden, (The Letters, two volumes) published by Horst Nalewski, Frankfurt / M., 1991, Vols. 2, p. 376.