The Near Future by Hannah Watkinson (self-published), 158 pp, softcover $45/hardcover $80; Conversātiō – in the company of bees by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown (Massey University Press, 2021), 272 pp, $60
At the end of her book The Near Future, photographer and writer Hannah Watkinson asks: ‘How do you love the land, as well as what’s buried beneath it?’ and then, ‘How do you make a living, if ignoring what is to come?’ These two questions underpin The Near Future as Watkinson takes us on a socioeconomic journey, using text and photographs, through the extractive industries of the West Coast, juxtaposed with the threat of climate change.
Watkinson is a recent MFA photography graduate of the Ilam School of Fine Arts, so although this book has a distinct journalistic drive, it’s enriched by touches that come from an art practice. As well as her own landscape photography throughout, Watkinson uses found snapshot images to make emotional counterpoints. At the start she tells of staying with a Coaster family with a magnolia out front, and finding a book on their shelves that says ‘magnolia are an evolutionary species—they appeared before bees, 20 million years ago’. She comments, ‘They are extremely tough, a bit like the people in this place really. If magnolia had eyes, I think about what this one would have seen.’ Having established the link with survival and time, she then uses found photographs of a magnolia tree in blossom, taken through a window, to start each section of the book.
Wisely, given the facts and statistics she asks us to take in, Watkinson begins each section with personal commentary or anecdotes from others. At the beginning of the ‘Cement’ section her host tells of the year the former Holcim Cement plant at Cape Foulwind didn’t give workers the usual Christmas leg of ham but instead, perhaps to cut costs, gave them cooked chickens. ‘It was a bit odd. And we all finished our token beer and headed off into town … and the carpark was left empty but covered in bags of cooked chickens. It would’ve made a great picture!’
Watkinson then proceeds to chart the closure of the Holcim plant, the redundancies that followed, the downstream effects on related industries like coal mining and the efforts, now stalled, to find an alternative use for the site. The information is delivered in short digestible packets of text, each one facing a related photograph by Watkinson. She’s a fine photographer in the topographic tradition of standing at a distance in a landscape and allowing the viewer to discover the man-made interventions in the resulting large-scale image. Although the photographs relate to the text, they are far from the literal news type of photograph, and allow us wander in often foggy, moody landscapes that ring true to the nature of the coast. At times they contain real emotional heft, as with the delicate stillness of the Pike River mine memorial, taken in mist. My one disappointment was some blocked up reproductions that don’t adequately capture the beauty of Watkinson’s images or allow the viewer to see into the subtle and important details, particularly with pictures taken in low light or looking into shadow.
The other sections cover the coal- and gold-mining industries, with the chapters ‘Water’ and ‘Climate’ providing the challenge to the traditional industries. In the ‘Water’ section Watkinson makes us aware of Westport’s vulnerability to flooding and how this has been a problem since the nineteenth century. The ‘Climate’ section covers some of the Climate Change Commission’s key recommendations, including the one that says that some businesses like coalmines will need to close. Watkinson gives us even-handed snapshots of West Coast reactions to this news. There’s the optimistic view that other industries can replace coal, as well as the sentiments that it will ‘cripple New Zealand’ or that climate change is a ‘gigantic fraud’. She also tells us of the large investment in coal-fired boilers by key West Coast organisations, the implication being that it might be hard to break this reliance on coal. Her photographs, however, point in one direction: seafront tennis courts existing in 2016 and ruined by 2021; a flooded beachfront skate park/basketball court; and sea foam threatening State Highway 67.
This is a finely judged book that tackles a difficult subject for the West Coast. The care taken in relating the history of and possible futures for the coast, combined with the photographic attention to what’s significant in the landscape, reveal that Watkinson has taken time to consider her subject. She doesn’t tell us why she started this project, but her question ‘What does it feel like to be here?’, which bookends the work, and her exact descriptions of sights and smells of the coast, suggest that she’s strongly drawn to the region and compelled to tell its stories, even the tough ones.
Environmental concerns also animate Anne Noble’s book Conversātiō – in the company of bees, but this time it’s the effect on another species that matters. With their role as one of the pollinators for the world’s plants, bees are essential for the health of the planet. But as Noble says, in describing her preoccupation with the death of the species, there are many reasons why they are under threat, from ‘the impacts of habitat loss and the over-use of chemical pesticides and herbicides in industrialised agriculture to the increasing spread of bacterial and viral diseases and parasites’. Noble’s Conversātiō highlights these vital concerns, but its wider focus is her protean art project that travels across art, education, science, poetry and history, seeking to connect us with the wondrous life of bees.
In an eloquent opening interview with art gallery director and writer Zara Stanhope, noted photographer and beekeeper Noble tells us of installing a hive at the bottom of her garden about ten years ago and opening the hive: ‘its complexity and the beauty of bees both individually and collectively … was magic’. Then followed the experience of watching the bees fly home in the evening light: ‘Over time, out of a kind of reverie, I began to see the world differently—as a complex interconnected network of relationships that a colony of bees makes palpably visible.’
The design and construction of the book respond to the multi-faceted way Noble has animated her art, both solo and with collaborators. Starting with the loose, soft cloth cover featuring looping flight paths (taken from a diagram about houseflies), the book strongly differentiates each section making bold use of photography (from art to documentary), text and paper stock. Coming to the different parts, whether Gwynneth Porter’s lyrical essay or a history of our thinking about bees, is like opening a particular drawer with an invitation to get lost in the contents. Almost inevitably, the structure made me think of the differentiated roles of bees in a hive which, collectively, make up a colony (or a book).
Anne Noble has taken her bee project many places. In the classic art photography works she has used imagination and innovation to make works such as the bee-wing photogram series ‘Bruissement’, the electron-microscope portraits of dead bees called ‘No Vertical Song’— ‘as a way to forecast the loss of a species’—and her ‘Bee Wing Tintypes’, among others. These artworks are used at large scale throughout the book, floating between the sections of text and documentary images to provide dashes of ecstatic, almost mystical experience.
Then there’s documentation of Noble’s multi-media and outreach projects. One of the most engaging is Conversatio – A Cabinet of Wonder, part of the Queensland Art Gallery Asia Pacific Triennial in 2018–19, a work consisting of a wooden cabinet covered with photographs from Noble’s dead bee project, which opened to a living hive that was able to be viewed by gallery visitors. The bees flew to their hive through a transparent Perspex tunnel connected to the outside. In describing her desire to overcome photography’s stillness, Noble refers to the idea of a living image: ‘Making a photograph that was alive inside seemed to bring two preoccupations together: fear of species loss and photography’s capacity to resonate with death and premonition.’
To create such a work required knowledgeable collaborators, including bee biologist and bio-engineer Mandyam Srinivasan and beekeeper Jack Stone. Their contributions in the book provide insight into the way bees and beekeeping operate. In describing his scientific experiments, Srinivasan provides fascinating information about how bees navigate, fly to food sources, land at their destination, let other bees know where the good nectar is or isn’t, and indicate when it’s time to start a new hive. This complexity and intelligence filled me with a sense of awe.
The abundance of Conversātiō includes Gynneth Porter’s essay, which references the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath and the essay-writing of the poet H.D. Of the photographs she says:
Noble’s photography does not make the bee an object to its subject. Rather, it suggests that bees are to be communed with, are understood to be of a reality we cannot always grasp … When not fixed into an anthropocentric hierarchy bees remind us that we are part of the sphere in which we live, that intricate, merciless, readjusting, impersonal ecosystem we call Gaia.
In another essay Mark Amery writes about the importance of Noble’s cross-disciplinary practice and relationships, and her work in schools. There’s also an extensive section, which I found the most difficult to enjoy, featuring excerpts from the history of human thinking and writing about bees, all the way from Xenophon of Athens (c. 430–354 BCE) to Carl Jung and Sylvia Path.
As a physical work Conversātiō is in the territory of an artist’s book, a result probably of the skill of designer Anna Brown, who is acknowledged as one of the book’s collaborators. Its multiple sections require concentration to digest, but at its centre is the word ‘conversatio’, described by Zara Stanhope as ‘a Latin term for the practice of attentive listening’. And perhaps this is what is being asked of the reader. Conversātiō is a fascinating hybrid work, formed by the streams of art, science, poetry and philosophical thinking that flow into it. After experiencing this book, with its insights and tactile nature, I know the sight of a bee alighting on a flower, then moving to the next and next, will never be the same.
MARY MACPHERSON is a photographer, photobook publisher and poet from Pōneke/Wellington. She is reviews editor for the PhotoForum website, and a member of the Photobook/NZ committee. marymmac.weebly.com