This image: Zanny Begg  
The Beehive 2018 (production still) Photo: Hugh Hamilton
Courtesy: the artist and Enigma Machine
 Featured image: Zanny Begg  
The Beehive 2018 (production still) Photo: Philppa Bateman
Courtesy: the artist and Enigma Machine

Life is inexplicable, random, despite the complexity of human choices.  Zanny Begg’s installation THE BEEHIVE interrogates choice through an unpredictability out of the viewer’s hands.  Produced by Philippa Bateman and presented in association with the Sydney Festival, the non-linear experimental documentary is inspired by the unsolved murder of Juanita Nielsen.  Nielsen, despite being an heiress, chose to lobby and activate against the development of Victoria Street, Kings Cross in the 1970s.  She disappeared, not accidentally, in 1975 and Begg’s work brings again to consciousness social justice and inequity around affordable housing.

As one walks into the largeness of the gallery, the distorted Fibonacci of the golden beehive wall pulls the eye toward the viewing room beyond.  But before making that decision, there are images and objects to presage your immersion.  These are gently curated for spareness and exactitude to orient the viewer to the period and the person.  The photos, modern reproductions of contemporary newspaper images, don’t dominate the space.  Nor do the museum cases which contain copies of the community-press pamphlets and newspapers with an occasional surprising interpolation … eyelashes.

For, Juanita  Nielsen was also a style icon famous for her beehive hairdo. And that imagery dominates the video which is superbly conceptualised and created.  The footage has been shot with care and the sequences edited for effect.  Scripted imaginings, bees in flight, Mapplethorpean flowers dominated my particular experience of the work.  Each engagement with the video installation will be different as the footage is randomly selected for each screening, the algorithm allowing 1,344 possible variations.

With well-known actor, Pamela Rabe, as the beekeeper and she, with a series of other performers, playing Juanita Nielsen, the scripted elements are shot in a variety of locations and styles.  The close-ups and site-specific environments layer complexity.  I was particularly struck by a sequence where the  actors speak to the camera of their impressions of, and reflections on, the character they are playing.  I was also very chilled by the recognition of place, the backgrounds are knowable.  The ending is not.  Very moving is an actor as Juanita Nielsen slowly exiting, by inference for the last time, through bevelled glass, heavy wooded doors of a Victorian foyer.  “The puzzle of who killed me lies at the heart of this city.”

Zanny Begg The Beehive 2018 (production still) Photograph by Hugh Hamilton Courtesy: the artist and Enigma Machine

When I spoke to Zanny Begg about Rabe’s coming onto the project she explained:

We thought about who should be Juanita’s ghost, the role she plays in THE BEEHIVE, someone who had Juanita about them. And Pamela really stood out because she has the height and the grace and the strength and the hair and the eloquence.  Also the voice.  Because Juanita was a very confident woman, she had a very strong voice.  And so Pamela really fit the bill, so we pitched it to her and she really liked the script and said OK she would make the time to do it.  She knew the Juanita story so was happy to be part of it.

I also spoke to Zanny about the time the project took.

About a year of research and scripting because it’s a complex script as you can tell.  I had to get all the pieces of the spaghetti to be interesting of themselves but fit into the overall project.  I knew whatever anyone who lives in Sydney knows about Juanita.  But I had to go deeper into her life so that took a lot of my time.

Why this story to foreground the issues?

Juanita disappeared 44 years or so ago because they wanted to silence her.  And it was ineffectual.  She was fighting for low income housing in the inner city, she wanted to protect urban diversity.  She wanted Kings Cross to stay a place that had that Bohemian heart that she loved and she gave her life for that.  And I think, now, that everything she fought for has only become more relevant.  I think Sydney is one of the ten least affordable cities in the world.  Millers Point, Sirius, Woolloomooloo is now in the sights.   

There’s this whole discourse that poor people don’t deserve harbour views so a place like Kings Cross is too good for them.  That’s the subtext:  the official rhetoric … this land is so valuable that we will sell it and build public housing elsewhere.  Whether that happens is debateable but also what Juanita was so focused on back in the 70s, which again, has only become more pronounced today, is that you can move someone to Mount Druitt … I used to live in Fairfield.. but if you don’t build infrastructure, and you don’t have functioning public transport systems and you don’t have job opportunities and you don’t have all the services that people need, you create an incredibly isolated, disconnected life for people.

I think it doesn’t really stack up, the justifications for destroying a community like Millers Point where, you know, you had people who lived there their whole lives, who loved it and it was their home and their neighbourhood and their friends and you fragment them… You’re just creating alienation.

In 2009 I did a project about gentrification so I had an interest there. (There Goes the Neighbourhood – Redfern)   I lived in Redfern, then to Fairfield now down in Wollongong.  And I think I am not unique, that’s what’s happened to a lot of artists, people with less secure incomes, poorer people, and they’ve been pushed out of the inner city. I think that’s really sad for Sydney because artists, working class communities, migrant communities they bring heaps of culture and life and when you lose that diversity and get affluent bubbles, what you get is an homogenisation of the urban experience.”

The themes of housing justice, diversity and public space meld with explorations around gender, artistic spirit and sex work in THE BEEHIVE but the murder of Juanita Nielsen frames that expression.  Both true crime or cold case followers and creatively driven people know how randomness solves crime and inspires the inventiveness of imagination.  This work has a concentration of variability in the video which clashes with the physical objects of the first room to make seeing THE BEEHIVE one of the must-chose’s of the Sydney Festival.

THE BEEHIVE from Zanny Begg [Facebook] is at UNSW Galleries, Cnr Oxford St & Greens Rd, Paddington 2021 until Feb 23. Free. Gallery open Tue–Sat: 10am–5pm (Closed Public Holidays).  Each video sequence runs about 33 minutes and the work is not recommended for children. The film contains moderate violence and adult themes which may be distressing to some viewers.

There is also an accompanying public program of events, RADICAL SYDNEY.

All things Sydney Festival:
Sydney Festival Website and Digital Program
Sydney Festival 19 Teaser Video