There's something a bit alarming about seeing rows of carcasses as part of an installation — even if they're just bees. Northern California artist Esther Traugot's sculpture Huddle 2 (Workers), currently on display in the three-person show Excerpts from the Natural World at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, consists of just that. On a round base, dozens of bee bodies are carefully laid out, like scientific specimens, in concentric circles that blossom outward. The corpses are intact — although some are missing legs — and wrapped in tiny, golden, crocheted rings gently tucked beneath their delicate, translucent wings.
The piece is striking, at first primarily because of the how. How did Traugot collect so many bees, and how did she crochet around them without destroying their little bodies?
The answer, of course, is very carefully — and with the accommodation of a beekeeper friend.
But the work is more than just a feat of handiwork. Ultimately, it's the why that makes it worthwhile.
Excerpts from the Natural World, on display through July 28, also features installation and painting by Mari Andrews and Sarah Hinckley. But Traugot's work is by far the most intriguing.
In addition to Huddle, the show features dried cherry pits in a glass bowl, barnacles protruding from every side of a shelf, eucalyptus caps arranged in a constellation, and large male honeybees cupped inside an avocado casing — all with the same hand-dyed, golden thread crocheted so tightly around them that the embellishment appears to be an organic feature of the objects. (Her body of work also includes large tree branches, crab claws, wild bird eggs, and a wide range of seeds.)
Traugot began her crocheting practice while pursuing an MFA at Mills College. She started as a painter, but was turned on to the wrapping work through a class assignment. She started off with twigs and seeds, then one day found a dead bee on her windowsill. Things escalated from there.
Most of Traugot's object-collecting still follows this pattern: She finds attractive objects while on walks in Sebastopol, where she's now based, then sources a local, ethical supplier.
For Traugot, the crocheting practice is akin to gilding — a kind of veneration of the natural object. But the artist is also suspicious of the act, satirizing the way that natural objects become "elevated" into artworks through preservation, and assume value despite initially having been left on the ground to decay. In a recent interview, she offered heritage seed banks as an interesting case study to consider how humans attempt to control the natural processes occurring around them by trying to immortalize that which threatens to go extinct. She suggested one could think of her work as a similar kind of bank.
"I think that at face value I'm picking up these objects and kind of caring for them, and the crochet wrappings are blankets or some kind of support," Traugot said. But, she continued, in the larger scheme of things, her actions are futile and self-indulgent — indicative of the way that humans tend to separate themselves from "Nature" arbitrarily. "As bandage or cozy, these support structures investigate the relationship between nurturing and controlling nature," reads her artist statement. "My interest in the objects extends from the notion of landscape and how we not only experience, but also negotiate with the natural world."