Baltic’s latest attraction might turn your thoughts to honey. David Whetstone met the creator of Apicula Enigma
It was a case of the birds and the bees as I headed down to Baltic – past the fake beach and the palm trees on Newcastle Quayside – for its latest summer unveiling, a level 2 installation called Apicula Enigma.
Last time I was watching the pigeons dancing on the glass roof as the sun’s rays illuminated Daniel Buren’s psychedelic light-and-mirrors show on level 4 (I also got mildly distracted by the fluffy kittiwake chicks nesting on the ledges outside).
This time bees were the main attraction (to be fair to Daniel Buren, the unwelcome birds were not part of his grand plan).
Apicula Enigma, I read as I crossed the Millennium Bridge, is “a documentary essay about a colony of honey bees”.
There’s a French connection here. Like Buren, Marine Hugonnier is French although she is based now in London.
But that’s it, really. The Buren show very much depends for its effectiveness on light, and lots of it.
Marine’s, being a projection, only works in the dark, although what you see will fill you with the joys of a sun-kissed day in the Koshuta mountains of Austria – think The Sound of Music but gentler, greener and without nuns or Nazis.
Gum-chewing Marine Hugonnier has a direct gaze – discernible even in a blacked out Baltic viewing room – and a ‘don’t mess with me’ demeanour. Perfect qualities for a film director, I thought. I liked her immediately.
We sat beneath a mighty projector with spools of film that wouldn’t have looked out of place – to my mind – in the early days of Hollywood.
This, I was reminded, was an installation rather than a simple film show. To her clear regret, Marine said her bees documentary had been shot digitally and then transferred to 35mm film.
The Heath Robinson film-spooling contraption, then, was a bit of artifice, as was the poster with its honeycomb design.
But what of the film itself?
“I wanted to make an animal documentary because I wanted to challenge the genre,” said Marine.
“There are conventions in making animal documentaries about how you approach the animals and the way you represent them. I really wanted to challenge those.”
What were these conventions, I asked... even as I was waiting for an Attenborough-like figure to stroll into shot, gesturing and explaining.
Traditional wildlife documentaries, suggested Marine, leaned towards the anthropomorphic, which is to say human sentiments and emotions get applied to the animal kingdom.
Also, she said, they tended to take the viewer into places and situations which would normally be impossible. Think Springwatch, think much of the recent Attenborough epics.
That, of course, is their appeal. It gives us the chance to go where a nesting chaffinch goes or a rootling mole.
Martine wanted to get back to basics.
“In traditional documentary films they are always showing how the societies of animals live together and what they do and here I wanted to do the opposite,” she said.
“I wanted to challenge the conventions of representation of animals on film.”
Her film has no voiceover but the frenetic bustling and buzzing of the bees joins with the subtle whirr of the projector to fill the gallery with sound.
At its most intense, the contrast between what you see – the pastoral loveliness of the tree-covered mountains – and what you hear is startling.
At the risk of surrendering to the anthropomorphism to which Marine objects, I would say the buzzing sounded very angry indeed.
Marine said she wanted her film to approximate to what a passer-by – rather than a Springwatch viewer – would actually experience.
Her film crew appear in shot (themselves being filmed, of course) and much is made of measuring the distance between hive and lens. This was a film documentary crew that, instead of probing, kept its distance.
Marine also resisted the animal documentary-maker’s temptation to resort to extreme slow motion, 300 frames per second, opting instead for a more prosaic 36 frames.
Much travelled, Marine said. “I have been to Afghanistan to make films and also to the depths of the Amazon rainforest and the top of the Matterhorn.
“I’ve always wanted to make a film like this but I was looking for the right director of photography. Most of the ones I met were working for the BBC and they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.
“Then, two years ago, I heard of this movie that was shot in Austria, More Than Honey, by a cameraman called Attila Boa who has worked with quite a few artists.
“I asked him if he would be interested and he happened to be living in Vienna and to be passionate about bees.”
Marine, Attila and the crew spent last June filming in this particular part of Austria where beekeeping is common and made the film whose title translates as ‘the bee’s riddle’, apparently.
It is said to draw on historical and literary accounts such as The Life of the Bee (1901) by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlink, Animal Worlds and the Human World (1934) by German biologist Jakob von Uexküll and also motion pictures and scientific studies of bee behaviour.
At Baltic, though, the viewer sees just a film about bees – or maybe a film about the making of a film about bees.
Everyone is wearing protective clothing but on one occasion you will be alarmed to see an uncovered human hand pressing against a swarm in a tree.
Marine revealed to me that these bees have killed their queen and are waiting for a new place to colonise. This, she said, is the only time in the bee life cycle when you can touch a swarm and not be stung.
I found this fascinating. For a few seconds, I told her, Marine had stepped into the Attenborough shoes, explaining what in her film goes unexplained. She smiled and I could almost sense her thinking: that won’t happen again.
I asked her what made her film art and not science and she told me about her “17-year track record of being an artist”.
“I think the film sits very well in an art context because it mostly is a very cinematic moment,” she said.
“Whether it’s documentary or fiction doesn’t really matter. It’s the approach that is important.”
Marine’s approach would not have appealed to the BBC natural history unit but art lovers love it.
Marine reeled off the film festivals at which Apicula Engima has been or is to be shown: Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Seoul.
Until November 16 it can be seen at Baltic, a 26-minute journey into the magical world of bees unsullied by voiceover or explanation.
I asked Marine if she was planning another animal documentary. She said she was but the subject was a secret.
“Give my regards to Mr Attenborough,” she said as I buzzed off into an overcast afternoon.