A pair of magpies have made their nest high in the ‘Hive‘ sculpture in Kew Gardens. They saw a chance to steal a space amidst the shine of aluminium, and are filling it with branches and twigs from the trees of the world: Ginko biloba, Sequoia sempervirens, Sophora japonica. Soon, magpie chicks will hatch into this exotic cradle, and grow their wings in a world of metalwork and cello-notes.
The Hive sculpture is certainly worth visiting if you get the chance. It’s about the size of a house. From the outside it looks like a huge, shining cube of smoke. Once inside, it is dome-shaped, like a giant igloo, or the interior of an empty skep.
The latticework of the structure is set with lights and speakers, and the entire huge assembly is connected to an unseen beehive. Vibrations from inside the hive are translated into music – one frequency may create a rising sequence of cello notes, another triggers a crescendo of strings. Different speakers play different sounds, so The Hive is filled with a constant hum of instruments, rising and falling in volume, controlled by the dancing of the bees.
Sit against the edge, and listen. The slow music is a beautiful thing, something you can become lost in. It does not try to literally replicate the sound of a beehive, but it creates something of its feeling: there is a melodiousness, a busy-ness. It is what I imagine it must feel like to be a bee. The sounds of the outside-world filter in too, adding themselves to the instruments: parakeets in the trees, the insistent chiming of a bell, the gentle roar of Heathrow arrivals distantly overhead. It is a feeling that’s difficult to describe in words.
Sit against the edge and listen. In this world of trainers and trouserslegs, you feel yourself become invisible. Pretend to hear the music, but let your attention drift to the people: “I’m a bee, I’m a bee, buzzz-bzzzz-buzzzz,” says someone, trying to engage the attention of their toddler, holding their arms straight by their sides and flapping their hands like tiny wings.
“Let’s make some honey, Mummy!” shouts the toddler.
The adults’ reactions are both fascinating and frustrating. The designer of the piece, Wolfgang Buttress, wanted it “to highlight how important the honey bee is to us”. Honey bees, he says, “are in crisis, and I wanted to create an immersive installation to help explain this, but in a quiet and gentle way.”
But from the conversations overheard inside the hive, it does not seem to be having this effect on the visitors. At best, there is a vague sense that ‘bees are good’, but there is no detail, and no sense of what is causing the ‘crisis’. There is no distinction between honeybee and bumblebee, no explanation of why or how bees are important.
But even if it fails to educate or explain, the experience of the space feels magical. Perhaps the magpies have understood it best – there is no ‘right’ way to experience it. It works best when taken on its own terms, without trying to understand intentions or to second-guess the experience of others.
Two women enter, and look up:
“Ha! Someone’s built a birdnest up there!”
“Maybe an actual bird did it?” suggests her friend.
There’s a pause, a look of disbelief, a shake of the head.
“Or maybe someone’s just put a load of sticks there.”
“I think a bird probably built it.”
“But, is it allowed? I mean, is it meant to be there?” she asks.
And somewhere nearby, a magpie cackles.