Prior to the anthropocene, a daffodil’s message that it was ready to be pollinated might have drifted many miles, attracting thriving populations of bees and ladybirds from a wide neighbourhood. Today a flower’s range is likely to be restricted to a couple of hundred metres, as dirty air dampens their scent and mobile phone traffic messes up the subtle electronic signals that pollinators use to create maps of the right flowers to visit. If that wasn’t enough, insecticide-laced nectar has become the heroin of the pollinator world, turning bees into confused addicts, high on neonicotinoids and tricked into feeling like they have superpowers, when in reality their neuro-systems are being turned to mush.
This and so much more I learned at the wonderful ‘Swarm: artists respond to the pollinator crisis‘ exhibition at the little Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow this weekend. Starting outside, Miyuki Kasahara’s clever ‘Can You Hear Us’ led us on a trail around the garden as we followed a conversation between trees, flowers and insects about how humans are destroying their world. Using wooden speech bubbles, the dialogue – which will expand over the course of the exhibition – proved a compelling way of illustrating just how much the natural world in this tiny spot of east London has altered since the industrial revolution.
Inside, Alke Schmidt‘s ‘Treacherous Flowers’ looks at first glance as a new take on a classic Dutch still-life vase of flowers. Upon closer inspection, however, we see not only bees buzzing in to sup nectar, but their dead brethren collapsed at the vase’s base, while the wallpaper behind reveals itself to be composed of the logos of the three dominant pesticide companies which make their gargantuan profits by destroying the natural world – Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta/ChinaChem, and Dupont.
As consumers we may avoid these toxic companies’ products, or even be unaware of their existence, but when we buy plants from a garden centre we unwittingly bring their poison to pollinators in our own backyards. Shalke’s, ‘The Choice is Ours’, a concertina-folded print that shows an image of the artists’ garden from one viewpoint, but shelves full of insecticides from another, reminds us that this, at least, is something all of us can do something about.
All is not lost, however, suggests a companion piece: scientists at Delft University are developing robotic bees to carry out mechanical pollination when the real buzzing beauties go extinct.
Nothing to worry about there, then. Except, that slightly troubling prediction of Albert Einstein – a scientist whose theories have a pretty good track record of explaining how the real world actually works: “When the bees die, [hu]man has four years left”. On the final wall of the exhibition, Hannah Ford has sewn Einstein’s words atop her ‘Wrestling Chatelains’ tapestry, that sees two forms representing humanity and the rest of nature locked in gas-masked battle.
If that all sounds depressing, don’t be put off because this exhilarating exhibition is also full of beauty. The Vestry Museum gardens themselves are still looking wonderful in early autumn, for one thing, and Sandie M. Sutton’s insect sculptures, made from the waste material of consumerist society, liven them up even more.
Ms Markontour and myself had prepared for the outing by listening to the incredible Indian environmental and food rights activist, Vandana Shiva, being interviewed on Democracy Now . If you can’t make it to Walthamstow for the exhibition itself, then watching this is a pretty good consolation prize. Talking about her latest book, ‘Oneness versus the 1%’, Shiva comes at many of the same issues from her own perspective of trying to stop the modern-day rape of India. “The one percent turn every natural resource into a war zone”, Shiva argues, and the three big seed companies don’t create anything of value – they just use patents and intellectual rights to collect rent on products which destroy the eco-system upon which all human life depends.
She ends on a positive note, however, inspired by the Green New Deal movement in the USA and explaining how, even now, a shift to poison-free, organic farming could double agricultural productivity in India, while employing ten times as many farmers (thousands of whom are currently committing suicide in despair at the loss of their livelihoods). She doesn’t say that, furthermore, the daffodils and bees will be able to talk to each other again, but thanks to ‘Swarm’, now I know that’s also a part of the future we want.