Small Gestures, by artist Carlene La Rue
Written by art historian Liuba Gonzalez de Armas
Pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change threaten hundreds of pollinator species. While the case of honeybees is well-known, wild solitary bees – who do not form hives or make honey – are less known. Bee hotels are human-made structures designed to provide safe nest sites for solitary bees. Carlene La Rue’s interactive mixed-media sculpture Small Gestures models a bee hotel with buzzing guests to bring attention to how we relate to these threatened species.
A key principle of sustainable design is self-sufficiency, or the capacity for something to function without external support. This idea is at the centre of Small Gestures’ design: a solar panel powers the electric toothbrush motor that animates the clay-and-plastic bees atop the cardboard structure for two minutes. No batteries are needed. La Rue, being conscious of the material footprint of her work, also chose to use only recycled materials. She explains:
“I was very conscious about reusing materials. The clay is reused waste clay from a different project, the wings are from an old file folder. All the cardboard is reused, [...] the electric toothbrush had broken so I pulled it apart and used it in this project.”
The irony of attempting to create a self-sufficient imitation of living beings is that life is rarely self-contained. Bees – like ourselves and most other species on our planet – are embedded in complex, interdependent ecosystems. The wellbeing of bees should concern us because we depend on them to pollinate the plants that produce much of the oxygen, food, and raw materials on which we rely. Not only are pollinators essential to our food systems, they cannot be replaced by technological means.
Small Gestures features exactly 46 bees. Each one represents a year since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which first drew global attention to the need for international cooperation on environmental protection. By echoing a local, personal gesture while referencing a global movement, La Rue’s sculpture invites us to think beyond clichés and act on all levels. To build a bee hotel and mobilize your communities to plant pollinator-friendly gardens and reject pesticides, while also petitioning elected officials to champion policies that protect pollinators. Each buzzing bee serves as a reminder that the clock is ticking and much remains to be done.