Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A living art installation aims to carve out a habitat for at-risk pollinators.
For now, the plants are stubby. Nearly 1,000 of them—bee balm, asters, coneflower, thistle—are nestled into packed-dirt walls arcing up 6 feet into the air. But as the summer wears on, they’ll grow. “I’m not producing a flower show, where they bring in all adult things and it’s finalized,” says the land artist Meg Webster. Change, she adds, “is part of the nature of the work.”
She means that both literally and figuratively. The installation will evolve over the course of its life, but it’s also a call to respond to an urgent ecological crisis: pollinator decline. Webster hopes that her work will attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators—crucial insects whose numbers are dwindling at alarming rates.
Until the mid-1980s, the plot of land near Vernon Boulevard and 31st Avenue in Queens was a landfill and dumping ground. In 1986, a team of local artists and activists transformed the spot into a space for large outdoor installations; now, 30 years later, Socrates Sculpture Park is celebrating its anniversary with a new site-specific exhibition, LANDMARK. The show explores ecological change, both positive and troubling. Webster’s work is on view, along with projects by nine other artists.
Until August 28, visitors can walk inside Webster’s Concave Room for Bees, comprised of 850,000 pounds of earth, topsoil, and loam. When the exhibition wraps, the structure will be dismantled and the plants will be dispersed around the park.
Designing structures with bees in mind isn’t without precedent. My colleague Laura Bliss has written about a campaign in Oslo to plant way stations for bees to feed and rest throughout the city. And in urban areas, the relationship between architecture and bees can be a symbiotic one: a 2013 Smithsonian piece described how bees can help sustain green roofs on skyscrapers.
Webster, who is 72, has used the natural world as a canvas since the early ‘80s. Some of her work, such as a queen-sized bed made from moss, signals that there’s an overlap between the natural world and the man-made one. In this new immersive project, Webster seems to be emphasizing that this relationship should feel immediate and demanding. Looking forward, she says that she hopes to pursue more projects that explore how green spaces can mitigate myriad problems in urban areas—for creatures both large and small.