The Hive Mind

Artists from Rodin to Warhol to Mark Kostabi have outsourced the construction of their work. Hilary Berseth goes them one better: He constructs basic frameworks of wire and wax, then lets teams of tiny yellow-and-black art fabricators finish the job. “I knew they were ordered and regimented,” the Pennsylvania artist says about his honeybees, which built the three otherworldly sculptures on view at Eleven Rivington. “I had an intuition that I’d be able to organize that, architecturally.”

Berseth’s armatures each go into a closed box in the spring, and then the respective colonies take over, filling out his templates with wax cells, then stuffing them with honey. “The last two seasons, I’ve been working with a beekeeper whose name is Jim Bobb,” he says, explaining where he turns for expertise. “He has a graduate degree in mathematics from Berkeley—he’s a minor beekeeping celebrity.”

The mysterious pinwheel shown here is, he says, the most refined result of his unpredictable process. But Berseth’s breakthrough came from an earlier hive, where the bees built him a remarkable spiral. “I was really happy with that one when I got it open. That was when I realized, Wow, you can sort of break the behavior”—that is, manipulate the bees’ instincts about proportion and form. “You can plan out a certain amount of what’s going to happen, and then that design will sort of ripple through, and then they’ll begin to draw out combs and riff off that design.” Does he suffer for his art? Yes. “I have been stung a couple of times. And I swell up like a son of a bitch.” Berseth’s joint show with Kevin Zucker, “Reverse Turing Tests,” is at Eleven Rivington through November 9.

Berseth starts with a form made of thin wax sheets, mimicking the spacing inside a natural hive.
Photographs Courtesy of Hilary Berseth

Berseth orders fresh colonies by mail each spring. Each has one queen and thousands of workers.

The first time he handled a crate of bees on his own was “frightening! A good beekeeper is really fluid at this.”

The assistants get to work.

Midseason inspection. Color indicates how well the queen’s laying eggs; a stinky smell means bees are dying.

A peek inside reveals some extracurricular building atop the plywood template.

At the end of the summer, when wax production tapers off, it’s time to display the finished sculpture.

The finished sculpture.
Photograph by Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

The Hive Mind