IN THE EARLY 1980s, artist Garnett Puett “kind of ran away,” as he told me on Zoom, from his life in rural Georgia, where his family had kept bees for four generations. He set his eyes on the New York art world, arriving as an MFA student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Up North, he was disinclined to talk about his childhood beekeeping, assuming the artsy sophisticates he rubbed elbows with would find it hickish. In his sculpture class, however, Puett found a new use for his knowledge when he was introduced to a traditional bronze technique called lost wax casting. Wax was a material he knew well. But put off by the plasticine waxes sculptors typically use, he started working with beeswax instead, undeterred by a professor’s warning that it would be trickier to control.
Soon enough, he started sculpting with beeswax instead of using it to make molds. And shortly thereafter, he began collaborating with bees directly. He built steel and wooden armatures, then covered them in beeswax, which naturally attracts honey bees. The insects then deposited wax and honeycombs of their own, building up the surfaces and forms. He had bees sent to him in the city, and told me that “before 9/11, you could ship 20 pounds of live bees by US Mail.” He called the finished works “apisculpture.”
Before he could even finish his MFA, the apisculptures made a splash. Works he showed in a 1985 group exhibition at Grace Borgenicht Gallery received a glowing review from legendary critic Gary Indiana, a write-up in People Magazine, and then, in 1987, had the honor of landing snapshots in a rare New Yorker issue to include photographs. The second apisculpture he ever made, at age 26, titled Mr. Zivic (1986), was promptly acquired by the Hirschhorn Museum. Gallerygoers were perhaps somewhat overexcited; a visitor took a bite out of a sculpture at that 1985 opening, hungry for honeycomb.
Now this was the hyper-commercialized and sensationalist art world of the 1980s. There was little room for work so subtle and sincere. “The gallery system … was like a treadmill,” Puett recalled. His dealer helped him figure out how to make the works more archival, more market friendly: once the bees were done sculpting, he started freezing and sterilizing the wax forms, then showing them in glass cases, where no one would mistake them for snacks. Suddenly, they were collectible. But still, Puett was showing and lecturing alongside peers like Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor, who made big shiny sculptures that gobbled up the art world’s attention.
When Puett’s dealer pushed him to work on the larger scale popular among his peers, he had to explain that that isn’t how bees work. A swarm of 100,000 bees is the size of a mini fridge, he told me. “That’s a lot of bees. That’s a lot of energy. Those little brains are, collectively, doing a lot of work.” Even if you get “a swarm the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, they won’t necessarily make something bigger or better.” He was also pressured to make the works more attractive—“they really do look like pieces of chicken,” he admitted—and to cast them in bronze. But this ran against the spirit of the project. Bees were his collaborators, not tools. “They might just swarm out and go somewhere else,” he said, and that’s their choice. Besides, these weren’t sculptures for the human eye alone. “They’re not meant to be beautiful.”
All the attention had seemed encouraging at first: Puett hoped that it might benefit the bees, and finally correct their reputation as vicious stingers. (This was before they’d been declared endangered, before they became a species to save.) Honeybees, he said, “are nice, fuzzy little animals” who sting far less frequently than people think. They are also the only insect that humans have domesticated, besides silkworms. He hoped too that his work might encourage urbanites to reconnect with nature. His apisculptures often took the shape of human figures because he wanted to create an image of the hive overtaking the individual, nature overtaking humans.
But then Puett learned that all the while, his art dealer had been getting “someone to fly over his whole [residential] compound and spray insecticide every spring … even as he was promoting a bee artist!” And with that, he left the commercial art world, participating only in the occasional museum project. In 1995 he gave up on New York, leaving his $400 per month waterfront Williamsburg loft for full-time beekeeping in Hawaii. He now operates one of the largest certified organic honey farms in the United States, caring for 2,000 colonies.
UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, interspecies artistic collaborations have been few and far between. If such collaborations made headlines, it was for the shock factor, and more often than not, constituted outright animal abuse. The most notorious examples have enlisted not insects, but furry friends. In 1974 Joseph Beuys locked himself in a room with a coyote for three days for a performance that became iconic, titled I Like America and America Likes Me. Three years later, Tom Otterness shot and killed a shelter dog for a film before reinventing himself as a whimsical sculptor whose plump bronze figures now bumble about New York’s 14th Street subway station. Then, in 2007, Otterness apologized and called Shot Dog Film “indefensible.” The 2003 video Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu shows dogs harnessed on treadmills, trying to run toward one another; it was removed from a 2017 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum after protests led by animal rights activists. And Eduardo Kac claimed, in 2000, to have had a rabbit named Alba genetically engineered using extracted green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish to make her glow. Alba was never seen publicly, so some are skeptical. Still, Kac was accused of “playing God.”
These works aren’t so much collaborations as efforts to enlist animals as artistic materials or playthings, as symbols serving human-centered narratives. But as the climate crisis lays bare the devastating consequences of this anthropocentric approach to nonhuman life forms, artists like Jenna Sutela, Beatriz Cortez, and Candice Lin choose methods more like Puett’s and other eco artists’: they invite other species in as contributors or collaborators who might add their own perspectives. They are working with other species in order to ask how we might ethically and responsibly collaborate and cohabitate.
Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis tends to get the credit for helping artists and thinkers understand just how urgent interspecies collaboration really is. She argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution—which hinges on the survival of the fittest—and showed that instead, life-forms have coevolved interdependently. We humans, for example, don’t make our own food the way photosynthesizing plants do. We rely on and enable the thriving of other species; we don’t just compete and conquer. Margulis was dubbed the “patron saint” of a recent exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere,” by cocurator Caroline A. Jones. In the catalogue, Jones asked: “If we are dependent on other living entities to survive, how should we acknowledge and honor that affiliation? How shall we live with responsibility and reciprocity in mind?”
“Symbionts” is one of several recent landmark exhibitions ushering in this new era of interspecies art. It joins blockbuster shows by interspecies artists like Tomás Saraceno and Pierre Huyghe. Anicka Yi’s breakthrough exhibition in New York at the Kitchen in 2015 involved bottled fragrances that the bio art icon made from swabs taken from 100 women in the art world. Yi merged bacterial cultures with high culture. And for the grand finale of the most recent Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, kudzu and sugarcane slowly enrobed sculptural figures in an installation by Precious Okoyomon that grew throughout the course of the show.
HUMANS HAVE BEEN OBLIVIOUSLY shaping the evolution of other species for millennia. Aurochs, the progenitor of modern cattle, are extinct, ironically due to diseases introduced by domestic livestock (not to mention hunting). Domestic felines learned to meow in order to catch the ear of human caretakers. And though lantern flies are labeled an “invasive species,” it is humans who, by cargo boat, brought them to the United States, where they now threaten trees and crops. Interspecies relationships enable life at all scales: each human carries around 10–100 trillion microbial (nonhuman) cells; they are our symbionts. Margulis and other scientists have argued that multicellular beings (such as humans) exist today thanks to ancient symbiotic relations among single-celled organisms that, by merging, created new species. This process is called “endosymbiosis.”
Which is to say that we are constantly collaborating with other species, whether we realize it or not. Interspecies relationships are scientific fact, but, being relationships, they are cultural and social too. That is why we need artists to help us navigate and model these emotional and relational terrains fraught with imbalance.
Among these artistic models, Anne Duk Hee Jordan’s stand out. Her work draws attention to the ways other organisms inhabit our everyday life. Growing up, Jordan “was always with animals,” she told me on Zoom. Now based in Berlin, she was adopted from Korea and raised in the German countryside, where she “didn’t like people so much, especially in the area I grew up in … they were really racist, and I was the only Asian person besides my brother.” Kids called her “rice-eater” and “slits.” So she hung out with the family dog and the chickens, and even befriended an injured wild crow. At 27, she enrolled in Berlin Kunsthochschule, where she studied under the climate artist Olafur Eliasson.
Before art school, Jordan, whose Korean name means “goddess of the sea,” worked as a rescue diver. Underwater, she grew fascinated by the sea cucumber—a scavenger that isn’t considered very intelligent, but is, in a sense, immortal. This is true in that there is no evidence that sea cucumbers die of old age, but only from accidents or disease. They have come to form symbiotic relationships with certain fish, who hide from predators in the sea cucumber’s anus. (Usually, the fish knocks before entering.)
Jordan was inspired by this kind of symbiotic relationship when she started her project “Disembodiment” in 2012. But instead of a fish, she chose to open her own anus to another species with whom she felt a kind of kinship: the potato. The crop, like the artist, thrives in, but is not native to, Germany. Spanish conquistadors brought the Incan crop to Europe, and during a 1774 famine, Prussian King Friedrich II introduced the root vegetable to the Germans; now, it is a dietary staple. Wanting to deepen their relationship based on shared experiences, Jordan made an animation that shows a potato growing in her butt. This followed a 2011 collaboration called Compassion, for which she grew potatoes that she watered not with H2O, but with her own blood.
In 2021 Jordan was invited to do a project at the reopening of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Like many others, she had serious reservations about the museum, which houses looted objects from around the world in an Imperialist palace, so she proposed a site-specific version of “Disembodiment” with a budget she said was “like three times higher” than the one allotted. She figured they’d turn it down, and was surprised when they agreed to the version she titled Culo de Papa, or ass of papa—in Spanish, papa can mean “father” or “potato.” She scanned and 3D-printed 33 copies of her own butt, then turned them into potato planters displayed outside the Humboldt Forum. She chose 33 because it is the most butt-shaped number.
The Humboldt Forum is housed in a palace once home to a number of Prussian kings, including King Friedrich II, aka the “Potato King” or “Frederick the Great.” Jordan’s project was a cheeky retort to the colonial histories of both the crop and the institution. At the end of the procession of potatoes was a kiosk that distributed postcards detailing the potato’s colonial history. “Visitors were shocked, and they started to scream at me!” she told me on Zoom. “They were like, how dare you! Don’t you know where you are?”
Jordan’s projects cleverly respond to a tendency in art and academic circles to privilege those creatures we consider worthy based on qualities valued in humans, like intelligence and productivity. Tuomas A. Laitinen, for instance, collaborates with puzzle-solving octopi, and Agnieszka Kurant made a series of sculptures with mound-building termites, in a gesture meant to highlight their collective intelligence—and to ask how we humans might learn from their cooperative model. Jordan, by contrast, takes care to honor species like sea cucumbers and potatoes that are regularly dismissed as banal, but are nevertheless worthy of care and attention.
Jordan, whose debut US museum show opens at The Bass in Miami December 4, is inspired, like many interspecies artists, by writer Donna Haraway. In 2019 Jordan made a video installation titled after Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble (2016). The artist’s version tells the speculative story of a five-generation, symbiogenetic relationship between monarch butterflies and humankind. Jordan’s communing with other species is echoed in Haraway’s influential 2007 book When Species Meet, where the author critiques philosophical, theoretical, and overly intellectualized accounts of interspecies relations that forgo everyday acts of care. She notes that in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari offer a theory of “becoming animal,” then add that “anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool,” as if interspecies care were too sentimental to be serious. She also pokes fun at Jacques Derrida, who once wrote a philosophical essay about his fear of being naked in front of his cat.
In an art world where interspecies collaborations get framed as intellectual or scientific endeavors, Jordan’s humble care for ordinary species stands apart. Her work is that of someone who has spent time with other creatures in everyday ways, like Puett with his bees. As it happens, Puett has decided to return to the art world. He has a new dealer—Jack Shainman Gallery—and plans to show new work next year at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, as part of the sprawling, multimillion-dollar Getty-funded initiative called Pacific Standard Time, with the theme “Art & Science Collide.” He’ll show 3D-printed armatures, and visitors will be able to watch the bees work throughout the show’s run, as they fabricate sculptures depicting humans carving sticks and making clay pots. “You know,” he said, “humanity before the algorithm.”