Close Encounters of the Art Kind: Fingerswarm, by Bill Woodrow
In 2002 Colin Painter recruited a variety of six contemporary sculptors and, through Brecknock Primary School, London NW1, a variety of six households – staff (teaching and non-teaching), parents and grandparents. For six months, work by each sculptor was rotated round these homes. The householders lived with each for a month, siting them as they wished in relation to their own possessions. In the interests of spontaneity they were not told the artists’ names nor the titles of the works. The artists had no knowledge of the homes involved.
Below are the commentaries to one of these sculptures, Fingerswarm by Bill Woodrow.
'For me making sculpture is a process of understanding what’s in my head. Only after I’ve made things do I start understanding the conceptual reasoning behind them.
'This theme, The Beekeeper – I don’t know where it came from – but it seemed a rich vein to tap. Metaphors and analogies – the relationship between bees and humans and of each to the world, different systems, the way they intermingle; how one relies on the other. It can be a symbiotic relationship. In the wild it isn’t.I approached it intuitively, allowing things to emerge without questioning why.
'I once experienced a mass of bees on my hand and arm. It had this warmth and absolute lightness. Because they were moving there was a sensual quality to it – not at all threatening. They were able to recognise it wasn’t a threatening situation. By one awkward movement I could have changed that. It was a situation in balance. Wonderful.
'I wanted a brilliant surface that would catch the light and might suggest some movement. Gold has a history of having currency in many cultures – as, occasionally, does honey. The bowl contains honey or wax. I’m unsure. First it’s sculptural, breaking the symmetry of the fingers keeping the thing off the ground. But it raises the question, "What’s the finger doing in the bowl?". So it has to contain something. It sounds naive but the thinking went that way. There is the cliché‚ about the ‘finger in the honey pot’... an allusion to human consumerism. Even in the highest technological endeavours we’re part of a natural system. But perhaps non-human systems have an inbuilt way of regulating their relationship with the world and humans haven’t quite got that right.'
Beeban, Spencer, Noah & Blaze
Spencer: ' We all thought about Pooh Bear. Blaze particularly liked it, although she was a bit upset that she couldn’t spread the honey on her toast. I like the humour of the fingers and the bees – but , while it’s pretty, bright and shiny, it’s not something that makes me respond strongly. I also think the plinth that it’s on lets it down.'
Beeban: 'I loved this piece from the moment I saw it – though I loathed the plinth. The piece was bold enough and big enough to make an impact in the room. This room is very bright and imposing. There are a lot of things that can catch your attention – not least the magnolia tree which has been in full flower outside the window – but always it was this piece that caught your attention. It made me realise that, good or bad, loved or not, art in a domestic environment has to be quite bold to take your attention.
' I loved the busyness of it, the life of it and the idea that out of it could come honey. It did elicit a lot of conversation in the family about Pooh Bear who is a favourite character in our lives. A very silly bear with very little brain… Somehow this is attached to that.
' We had a conversation about whether there was someone trapped inside of it. But that seemed rather a macabre version. I like to see it more as a sort of life force – the sweetness that comes out of a potentially lethal thing.
' One of the most important things that I have got from this project is that it has given me the confidence to say that what a piece of art makes you feel is a completely changing thing. Having it in the home allows it to mean different things at different times. It’s not only about a conversation that the artist is trying to have with you. It’s also about allowing yourself to have and choose whatever response you like.'
Gareth, Olwen & Rhiannon
Rhiannon: When I first saw it I thought it was pretty. I thought they were little wasps but then I came to see them as a bit like mini-scarabs – Egyptian beetles that live in the tombs. I was the first to notice the fingers.
Olwen: The fingers are rather grotesque. ‘The finger in the honey-pot’ comes to mind – going after something you shouldn’t and, of course, getting stung. The gold and black general effect is like bees even though it isn’t very realistic. One of those nests that sometimes grow out of trees…. It looks very soft. You feel you could put your hand in there. It’s got movement to it as well.
Gareth: It reminds me of the eminent scientist who said of the bee, ‘The shape of this body is all wrong, the wings are too small; it definitely cannot fly’. I imagine a whole body inside it, not just an arm. ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweet.’ A riddle that Samson used when he found the honey inside the lion. It’s on the side of Tate & Lyle syrup containers.
Lynn, Dot, Michelle, Stephanie & Jordan
Lynn: I’ve had varied reactions to this. I’ve enjoyed having it in the home. It’s lovely. At the same time it’s very thought provoking. It reminded me and my oldest daughter of the film The Candyman. It’s a horror film. A man has his hands and feet cut off by a mob. They smother him with honey. He was near a beehive and all the bees covered him. When he comes back he’s covered with bees and bees are shooting out of his mouth.
Dot: On television I’ve seen experiments where they cover people with honey and put bees on them and count how long they can stand the bees on them.
Lynn: The bowl definitely has honey in it. I’ve wondered what the fingers mean. Sometimes I think it’s about wealth. It’s gold and they’re making something – producing something. Maybe it’s about the chain – the bees and the human. We sell their honey, don’t we? Make money out of it. They’re men’s fingers. The women are the workers. Money, wealth and power...
Dot: I think there’s a queen bee at the top. You get a queen bee and you get workers – like you do in society. The fingers are there because the human hand has an involvement in the bees. Man helps the bees. Maybe it’s just imagination. Sometimes our imagination runs wild with us. You think of something and you just do it. It might seem completely stupid but you do it because that’s what you feel at the time.
Maggie & Sylvester
Maggie: I always think of gold leaf as being something rather special. I associate it with delicate decorative objects. It seems strange for it to be in such a solid mass. When I look at it closely it looks like a mass of flying insects – huge wasps or something. I have a very nervous reaction to that as some people have for snakes. A mass of moving things like that makes me feel very uncomfortable. One of our visitors thought it looked like the cockroaches in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I have appreciated seeing it against the greenery with the sun shining on it.
Sylvester: The first impression was of a small cheerful person, a gnome or a Venusian, nice golden curly locks looking good among the houseplants. Then I started to think about the supports. What were they – legs, feelers, phalluses, trunks. I only discovered after a week that they were modelled with knuckles and fingernails.
I wonder why one of them is in a bowl – and what substance is meant to be in the bowl. I can’t help feeling some-thing nasty is going on. They remind me of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s nasty little girls.
But, after about three weeks, I became reconciled. I think of ‘Curly’ as a little pet – and having nasty little ways doesn’t stop one liking pets. Little dogs straddle chair-legs, little cats use earth boxes and lick themselves all over. Whatever Curly is up to shows he has his own agenda. He doesn’t bother me and I still like to see him in the corner of the room.
Mari & Michael
Mari: First you think it’s attractive – gold and pretty. It has a nice touchy-feely shape. You want to hold it – but once you see that it’s covered in wasps or bees it’s frightening. The most disturbing thing about it is actually the fingers. Why are they grey? It’s as though they are the fingers of a corpse. It all becomes a bit sinister.
Michael: There is a contradiction. Your initial response is to want to touch it but when you get close to it you think maybe you don’t any more. My little nephew stayed here and he usually touches everything – putting things in his mouth – and he never touched it once.
Mari: Visitors have looked at it in different ways. The most sophisticated was Michael’s mum who saw a moral in it. ‘If you put your fingers into the honey-pot the bees will engulf you.’ It is the good trying to get out but surrounded by the evil bees. The honey is the goodness on the inside.
Michael: It’s weird isn’t it? Three fingers, loads of wasps… I suppose you could interpret it as being about the individual trapped in this horrible collective nightmare – a sort of Orwellian 1984 – but that’s not really my main response to it. I think people are supposed to look at art in the opposite way that you look at politicians. When people look at politicians they’re cynical and look for the bad, but with artists you’re taught to be respectful, positive and optimistic – giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Mari: I think people are quite cynical about artists. The attitude of the tabloid press is, ‘What a waste of money, what a waste of time!’
Mari: It’s amazing next to the dog, which is pretty traditional. I like it in the fireplace. It gives a centre to the room rather than the whole room being centred on the television. It’s much more interesting to live with something you can talk about, rather than things that just blend in with the furniture. It’s a conversation piece – a bit bigger and bolder than everything else. At the same time, the mirror’s gold, the candlesticks are gold – so, if it was going to be there for ever, it might fit in with everything else and you wouldn’t notice it as being so different.
Michael: I think the china dog will be glad to see the back of it! I’ve never noticed before but it just looks terrified and nervous.
'It’s been a pleasure to have this. It’s so cheerful and witty. It’s a very full pregnant shape – fat and full of goodness. It just made me smile the moment I saw it.
'I like the extended shape – heavy and sweet like over-ripened fruit. It’s dripping, not nectar but wax coming from the core. It’s almost like an urn. You take your cup to get your cup of wax. Ideally it should be somewhere where people sit and eat or cook, but I couldn’t move it to the kitchen – the idea of bees and honey, the fruit-like shape, the idea of pears.
'I get the impression of quite a powerful core – something in the middle that one’s aware of but can’t see – that’s causing the cluster. Something throbbing; maybe a queen bee or something.
'The fingers make me laugh. They’re almost cartoon-like. I’ve no idea why there are three of them and why they aren’t toes or feet. They’re corpse like in colour; quite spooky. The cartoon takes on a grotesque sweet thought. It could lead you anywhere, blossom, honey, wax….'
Written to accompany the exhibition Close Encounters of the Art Kind.