The music playing from Jessica Segall’s piano, which sits in Temple Contemporary, isn’t the sound of vibrating strings within the instrument.
Instead, it’s the sound of a colony of honeybees hard at work inside the piano.
Segall, a New York-based artist, installed her sculpture, “Fugue in B Flat,” in Temple Contemporary last month. It will be on display until Dec. 18.
Encased within the body of a piano and recorded with a contact microphone, Fugue in B Flat allows exhibit-goers to listen to the harmony of bees buzzing closer than they usually could in nature.
Through the piece, Segall wants to shed light on the unbalanced state of the environment, while communicating the need for a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.
“I was really interested in taking a sculpture that can inhabit both human and animal worlds,” Segall said. “Bees are threatened right now…so it was an interest in bringing a wild element to the gallery, to play with that element of fear and to bring attention and familiarity to the insect we rely on for agriculture.”
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the honeybee population declined from about 6 million colonies in 1947 to 2.4 million colonies in 2008. The agricultural industry depends on honeybees to pollinate the majority of its food crops, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
“A lot of foods, nuts and vegetables are obligatory insect pollinated plants,” said Vincent Aloyo, a horticulture instructor who teaches an Introduction to Beekeeping course every spring semester at Ambler Campus.
“It’s not just bumble bees, but also honeybees, who are contributing…to our food supply,” Aloyo added. “We depend on it.”
While honeybees tend to produce a surplus of honey and live in larger colonies, bumblebees do not produce as much honey and live in smaller colonies. Segall used honeybees in her piece to emphasize the frequency with which humans rely on these creatures for food production.
Segall hopes viewers will feel admiration and appreciation for the “dangerous and sweet” animals.
“There’s this balance that the bees are creating inside society,” Segall said. “This balance is achieved through the ability to sustain the human population through pollination efforts and the beautification of the Earth’s landscape.”
From an ecological position, Segall said she chose the piano because bees prefer a certain type of architecture.
Bees will live in nearly any cavity, like a beehive, the wall of a house, a hollow tree or a piano, Aloyo said.
“There’s this very specific housing parameter that you can use to build a hive, which makes it possible to work with them easily,” Segall said. “I knew that the inside of a piano was the right interior dimensions, which made it suitable for bees to live inside.”
Last summer, Segall displayed an earlier iteration of the sculpture at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York. Unlike the clean white walls of Temple Contemporary, trees and flowers dotted the landscape around the sculpture in the open-air park.
For the sculpture’s time on display at the park, Segall specifically designed the piano to fit within the outside environment. By cutting an opening at the bottom of the piano body, the colony of bees were allowed access to the inside and outside of the sculpture.
“You got to see the bees flying in and out,” Segall said. “So I’m sure it must be a different experience between galleries.”
Despite the adjustment in location, Segall said her message remains the same: humans must make a conscious effort to adapt to the environment by understanding how their actions impact animals.
“We’re not working on an economic scale that’s possible to maintain the current relationship that we have with the environment,” Segall said. “It’s very unbalanced. But I think the piece at Tyler is more poetic. I think what I like about that is there’s this sort of human-nature system of harmony.”