Bees, Candles, Roots, and Remembrance

Interview with Alexis Hyman Wolff

A woman standing in front of a showcase with books.

Alexis Hyman Wolff in her exhibition Zur Zeit at the Museum der Dinge, Berlin, June 2013.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

One of the works in our art vending machine is a candle shaped like a root, made by the artist and curator Alexis Hyman Wolff. In this interview, she offers insight into the development of the work:

Christiane Bauer: Why did you make a candle for the art vending machine?
Alexis Hyman Wolff: Thinking about the small size of the objects and the temporary home they would find in the vending machine, I wanted to reflect on the idea of the souvenir, a central theme in museums. Candles are used for memorial in many cultures.  In Jewish tradition, a yortsayt candle is lit to remember a loved one on the anniversary of their death.

What is special about the material you used?
The candles are made out of beeswax from a beekeeping supplier in Berlin. I understand that beeswax is one of the few materials that burn without producing black smoke, which could explain the belief that burning beeswax candles is good for the air.  According to a European folk custom, when someone dies, a member of the family must go to the hive and “tell the bees,” and also invite them to the funeral. This tradition suggests a link between bees and the spirit world.

How important is the aspect of “remembrance” in your work?
I understand remembrance to be directly linked to loss and how we cope with it. In a world marked by transience and mortality, work in museums attempts to give knowledge, objects and stories a longer life, or a second life, in the service of generations to come. Remembrance, and finding ways to honor and understand the past, is at the core of this work.

A candle shaped like a root

A candle shaped like a root, made by Alexis Hyman Wolff
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

How does the candle you created for the art vending machine take part in discussions on “remembrance” and “memorabilia”?
The candle is a small and modest object, which has enormous symbolic power: creating light in the darkness and harnessing fire. In the past, in medieval churches for example, candles were used to measure time. I like the idea that the candle opens up a period of time that is dedicated to remembering. The wax is transformed and eventually consumed as it carries out its work, and in the end all that remains is memory. Plato wrote about memory being like a wax tablet upon which our experiences are impressed, if only for a brief time. All of these aspects make the candle a complex object.
Furthermore, the candles in the art vending machine are shaped like roots, so that they might be able to help us to reflect on our origins, our ancestors, and the things that are “under the ground” or remain unseen. How do we remember what we cannot see? This question fascinates me.

You found the roots that shaped the candles in the vicinity of Los Angeles. How did you choose them, and how did you cast them as candles?

Three candles shapes like roots

In search of one’s roots – Alexis Hyman Wolff made a mould and beeswax casts of these finds from her home, California.
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

Finding the roots was a great adventure and very surprising. I thought that the roots in the forest would look just like taper candles, perhaps a bit curvier, but they were wildly different: some looked like knots, others more like branches or lightning bolts. After I had chosen six different roots that had the right size, a dear friend and expert mold-maker at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles showed me how to mount the roots and wrap them in silicone-dipped gauze strips. We then sliced the molds to extract the original roots. For each candle, the molds had to be tied up with string and nestled in sand before the melted wax could be poured in. Then the candles had to be extracted at just the right temperature for them to keep their shape, without getting brittle. My kitchen in Berlin was a candle production headquarters for several weeks. That was a nice winter activity!

What should our visitors do with the root candle?
I leave it up to the individual to decide whether they will burn the root candle or not, and hope that either way it might be a good reminder to those who take it home.

Thank you very much, Alexis.

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