Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bones - Bones - Bones - For Art's Sake

Bones have been used decoratively since prehistoric times. The use of a human bone is usually linked to a ceremonial connection with the dead rather than just a pragmatic use of a hard material.

I've posted images of carved Tibetan skulls here before. These religious/ceremonial treatments are many and varied, so I won't go into that here. Instead, I want to concentrate on bones manipulated for purely aesthetic reasons, even if they are located in a religious context (as in a church or catacomb).

One of the older forms of decoration with bones could be the ossuaries and arranged catacombs found throughout the world. They seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, a solution to overcrowded grave sites or burial vaults within the last few centuries. The Paris Catacombs are probably the most well known.

Quarries under the city of Paris were used to store the bones removed from overcrowded surface cemeteries in the 18th century. Once moved there, the bones were arranged into patterns, retaining walls, and displays complete with text plaques. These arrangements were more for expediency and tidiness than for some greater aesthetic endeavor. The Viscount of Thury, the quarries' general inspector from 1808 to 1831, was in charge of giving these anonymous residents a dark and gloomy decorum. This Daily Motion site has some good video, presented in French. A really good first hand description by Jeff Belanger can be found here in English. For visitor information go to the official (but drab) Paris Catacomb website. You can also take a virtual tour here.

One of the most well known decorative sites is the Sedlec Ossuary (a.k.a. Kostnice), a small Christian chapel decorated with human bones. It's located in Sedlec, a suburb in the outskirts of the Czech town Kutna Hora. See the Official Sedlec website or go to Frisco Ramirez's site,  where there is a great collection of images and information. There are also more photographs on this other site.

Another ossuary associated with the church is Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, where the crypts of Capuchin monks are decorated with the bones of over 4000 friars. This site has some photos, too.

 The Atlas Obscura has a page with links to many more of these kind of sites. Well worth the exploration.

Contemporary artists who use human skeletal remains in their art are doing so fully aware that the knowledge of the bones being human makes a huge difference in how viewers respond to an art work. A good example is the sculptural work of Wayne M. Belger. He has used the human skulls to make elaborate, bejeweled, and fully operational pin-hole cameras. The idea of reactivating the third eye of a skull to create a photographic image is a powerful allusion.

Of course the most ostentatious example of a human skull used in an artwork is Damian Hurst's 2007 For The Love of God, a £50 million ($100 M) encrustation with 8601 diamonds set in platinum on an 18th Century human skull. The large diamond on the forehead is worth £4 million by itself.

What can one say.... For reviews and more information go to these links: White CubeMail Online, and Reuters. Or watch this video:

When I was in New York in 2007, I came across a small exhibition in Chelsea which included a series of similarly treated skulls, but from the 1980's. So Mr. Hurst was certainly not the first to go this route; he just carried it to the extreme. These skulls were half-covered with semi-precious stone, ball bearings, diodes, coral, and with glass eyes. Unfortunately I don't remember whose work this is. (Can anyone help me?) There were other skull and bone related pieces in the exhibition, but they were bronze casts or drawings.

This artist (below) who arranges bones into provocative assemblages is also unknown to me. (I can't find the name associated with these images ... anyone??) The politicized nature of this work makes it seem fairly recent. I am not sure that they are real bone or just casts, but the effect is the same here in reproduction. Being in front of the actual pieces to see if they were real human bone would take the work to another level.

These examples have a precedent from the 1930's, a Surrealist piece by Wolfgang Paalen. "The surrealist use of bones as material in connection with war and destruction becomes evident in Wolfgang Paalen's 1938 bone pistol Le Genie de l'Espece, dating from the eve of the Second World War (see below). In this work, chicken bones simulate the shape of the deadly weapon in the moulded trough of a velvet-lined pistol casket. Cause and effect seem to be coalesced in a matrix - the bones, arranged as a fantastic firearm, present death as the deliberate intention and inevitable result of the use of weaponry and are thus meant as an unmistakable warning of conflict resolution by force." [text by Sebastian Hackenschmidt from Image & Narrative, Issue 13, Nov. 2005; image © Stiftung Wolfgang und Isabel Paalen, Mexico]

If you are an aspiring bone artist, where can one find human bones? I mean legally...
EBay professes to not allow the sale of human parts, yet has a fair amount of human bones for sale, as long as they are "for study", or they originate "from medical/scientific collections". A commercial source outside of the expensive scientific/medical supply world is The Bone Room.

I was quite disturbed, however to see the guys in the TV show, Mythbusters making test heads cast in ballistic gelatin with real human skulls inside in order to see if everything shattered on impact when frozen with liquid nitrogen as in a popular movie. (see clip: Shattering Heads at the bottom of the list) Using human bones for fine art, memorials, or for medical or scientific study is one thing, but by being for entertainment, this seems to have crossed a line that I am not willing to cross.

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