Remembering the dead: cinerary portraits

For nearly
a decade, German-born New York-based neo-conceptual artist Heide Hatry has
laboured in great secrecy on her new project. Following Heads and Tales (2009), a series of sculptural
busts of women produced using untreated pig skin, flesh, and body parts, and Not a Rose (2012), a book reflecting on the
cultural meaning of flowers that revolves around her photographs of flower-like
sculptures made from the offal, sex organs, and other parts of animals, Icons in Ash: Cremation Portraits is the next step in Hatry’s bio-art
which may also be her breakthrough with a larger public. Icons in Ash is a series of portraits of deceased people made with
their own ashes. Blurring the boundaries between presence and absence, being
and representation, matter and nothingness, it invites reflection on
memorialisation and commemoration practices, on the meaning of life and death, on
the extent to which and ways in which death is present or not in life, and on
such practical matters as what to do with cremains, the dead’s remains left from
cremation. Scatter them over the sea? Keep them in an urn on the mantelpiece?
Turn them into art?

Like all
bio-art, Icons in Ash is not
uncontroversial. Its conversations with the dead – both the ones in which the
artist engages and the ones the viewer carries out with the portrait – are
transgressive, and not only in the sense of crossing the boundary between life
and death, the living and the dead. With her cinerary art, Hatry also hovers
about the threshold between art and the funerary market, which includes urns,
jewellery, and memorials, all designed to commemorate deceased loved ones by
holding remains, ashes, or keepsakes. Crucial to Icons in Ash, however, is the process of becoming-portrait, the
painstaking artistic process of making that literalizes re-membering by
performing it. Icons in Ash ‘does’
memory as a (re)constructive gesture. Taking time, the making of the portrait
is a ritual of transformation of matter. This transfiguration of remains into
portrait is an ingenious way of keeping the memories of deceased loved ones
alive. At once representing (in the sense of mimesis) and re-presenting (in the
sense of making present again), the portraits are memorials for loved ones that
take the ashes out of the cremation urn to reconstitute their likeness with
their remains. As the portrait becomes both the container (urn) and the
contained (ashes) – and in fact container and contained are even further
blurred as Hatry mixes the human ashes with white marble dust (reminiscent of
funerary urns, graves, and stelae) and black birch coal (evocative of the
wooden coffin) – absence is transformed into a material presence in which self
and representation coincide and become one. As such, Icons in Ash also restores the image to its original purpose: to
keep the dead among the living. Whereas the veneration of the dead,
specifically ancestors, is rather marginalized in dominant cultures of the
Global North, Hatry’s art facilitates the presence of death in life, enabling
the dead to grace their survivors with their presence.

So, how
does Hatry do this? As she explains in an interview, because the ashes are pure bones
and therefore monochrome, she uses white marble dust (which doubles as a symbol
of death) and black birch coal (functioning as a symbol of life) to get a
palette ranging over different shades of grey. To make the portraits, she
developed three different techniques, which also differ in how time-consuming
they are for the artist (and hence, how expensive they are for the purchaser). First,
there is the mosaic technique, applying loose ash particles with the tip of a
scalpel on beeswax. This is the most time-consuming method, taking weeks to meticulously
piece together the portrait out of the ashes. Second, there is the method of drawing layers of very diluted ink
onto either an emulsion of ashes and binder, or on a surface of pure
ashes. Finally, and much cheaper than the first two methods, Hatry
developed a photographic technique in which she recreates a photograph on
either a surface of pure ashes or on a surface bearing an emulsion of ashes and
binder. This latter technique especially was developed with the prospective
client in mind; because many people who might be interested in having such a
portrait can’t afford the mosaic-image that is so time-consuming to create. Developing
various techniques of cinerary portraiture, Hatry’s has created a bio-art that
extends our lives in art, enabling humans (and animals: she also does portraits
of pets) to be present in their likeliness.

Photo: Heide
Hatry, Roberto Guerra (2016). © Heide
Hatry. Reproduced with the artist’s permission.

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