This summer MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is home to tens of thousands of Italian honeybees, as part of a recently acquired sculpture by French artist Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962). Huyghe’s Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) [Reclining female nude] (2012) incorporates a living bee colony that stands in for the head of a figure cast from a bronze sculpture by the Swiss artist Max Weber (1897–1982). The first work in the MoMA collection to include living animals, its installation required extensive preparation, and MoMA staff collaborated closely with Connecticut-based beekeeper Andrew Cote to ready its summer debut.
Known as Manhattan’s beekeeper, Andrew works with schools and businesses to keep honeybees in gardens and on rooftops, and he sells his honey at the Union Square greenmarket. We delivered the sculpture to his farm in mid-April, and he followed detailed instructions from the artist about how to introduce the colony to the sculpture and coax them into making it their home, tending them daily and encouraging them to build the draping, bulbous hive required by the artist. Following months of coordination with Andrew and departments across the Museum, installation began at 7:00 on a mid-June morning, with the MoMA exhibition design team and landscapers preparing the ground of our tree-shaded spot in the Sculpture Garden. Andrew smoked the bees to calm them, and installers suited up in protective clothing to maneuver first the base and then the figure (together weighing approximately half a ton) into place, taking care not to harm or disturb the bees. We had monitored the growth of the hive and colony over the weeks via photographs, but were thrilled to finally have them arrive, and a small crowd of MoMA staff gathered to watch the installation unfold. These unusual circumstances made for a nervous couple of hours, as this was a first for all: Andrew’s in helping to realize an artwork, and the installers’ working with live bees.
Now, two weeks later, Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) is proving a popular feature in the Sculpture Garden. The hive continues to grow and the population of the colony could reach 75,000, as the bees nourish themselves with pollen and nectar from Central Park and other nearby green spaces. Andrew monitors them twice daily and they are thriving, having made a smooth transition from rural New England to Midtown Manhattan. Their winding down from the peak of their summer activity—one aspect of their natural lifecycle that is an integral element of Huyghe’s project—will guide us in determining our deinstallation date, at which point Andrew will take the bees back to Connecticut and the sculpture will go into storage, awaiting a future summer exhibition.