SHADOW OF THE BEEKEEPER (Text from information sheet)
NatWest Group Art Collection 1999

The Shadow of the Beekeeper is the most recent of a group of thematically related sculptures by Bill Woodrow on which he embarked shortly after his Tate Gallery exhibition in 1996, but it is the first to be shown. It is also the largest in scale, with the stylized representation of a nude man twice lifesize looming over the spectator in such a way as to create a disorientating sense of one's own physical existence, as experienced by Gulliver in Brobdingnag or Alice after her ingestion of a magic potion has shrunk her drastically in size.

The shadow cast by the figure - hovering just above the ground, suspended by wires and attached to its feet - is an immediately arresting image but one that slowly releases its subtle poetic ambiguities. The artist's longstanding interest in the metamorphosis of one thing into another here finds form in the transmutation of the three-dimensional geometric body parts into the virtually flat organic shapes of the bee-like silhouette created by them, with a hive standing in for the torso. Although any attempt at a naturalistic reading repeatedly breaks down, the imagery has been nourished by a delight in close observation, for example in the description of how a shadow falls over a three-dimensional object.

Woodrow's beekeeper takes the form of a marionette operated implicitly by an unseen giant puppet-master. The conception of the body as an old-fashioned toy appealed to him for its directness, since the movement of such objects relies not on an electric current but on the manipulation of the strings by a human being. Having played with such toys, who could forget the vivid sensation of psychologically projecting oneself into the object and investing it with one's own or imaginary personality? While obviously sympathetic to the beekeeper, Woodrow is hesitant about identifying too closely with him, preferring to see him as a more general metaphor. That the figure is literally held up by wires accentuates its fragility and dependency, the precariousness of its very existence. In a number of related works, the substitution of a pair of scissors for the wooden handles concentrates one's attention on what Woodrow terms this 'edge of danger'.

In his search for a theme that would excite him to begin work again after the interruption of a major show, Woodrow gravitated to that of the beekeeper, which might seem at first a rather eccentric choice for a confirmed city-dweller. He quickly realized, however, that it had enormous potential in terms of motifs and object-making but also because of the richness of associations and the issues on which the activity touches. He looked at photographs, read about the behaviour of bees and their means of communicating with each other and even went on a beekeeping course as part of his research into the subject. What fascinated him most was the symbiotic relationship between human beings and other living things within a macrosystem: the bees receive shelter and sustenance and in return provide their carers with honey, each exploiting the other for their mutual benefit. Yet each also has the potential to harm or fear the other. Woodrow's chosen subject thus provides a paradigmatic model of the double-edged relationships - by turns harmonious, co-dependent and destructive - that exist within the natural environment.

Text © Marco Livingstone, London, 1999

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