Seminar Series Talk for The Association for the Study of Death and Society

I spoke about my PhD research for The Association for the Study of Death and Society as part of their Seminar series on 23rd February 2021.

You can watch the talk back on Figshare here:

https://figshare.com/articles/media/Using_Art_Practice_to_explore_acknowledgement_of_the_unidentified_dead_video_audio_only_presentation_/14096459?file=26578371

Seminar Series - The Association for the Study of Death and Society

CAA Conference – Panel Discussion

Bioplastic Brogue Shoe

I was part of a panel discussion at the CAA Conference 2021 – Biodegradable Art: Towards Regenerative and Circular Systems

“In this session for the CAA Conference, artists and educators using biodegradable materials are invited to present their work and their process. The focus is on artwork made with materials grown in-house or locally, or obtained through waste collection or foraging, that can be composted in personal or municipal facilities.”

The panel was chaired by artist Nichole van Beek and the other artists on the pane were:

Yi Hsuan Sung

Judi Pettite

Maria Whiteman

You can see the whole recorded panel discussion here:

Gelatine Bioplastic

Gelatine Bioplastic Adidas Trainer Shoe

Gelatine bioplastic is an interesting material because of its biodegradability and organic make-up. Gelatine is bodily, it is made from pig collagen sourced from skin, bone and connective tissue.

Gelatine Bioplastic is transparent, ephemeral and malleable, and easily made in a home kitchen. It has a ghostly quality, that can physically embody something that is missing, barely there.

Bioplastic is biodegradable and slowly breaks down (just as bodies do) becoming part of the surroundings.

Evaporation also has ghostly qualities; moisture is held in the air as it evaporates but remains unseen. References to the ‘unseen’ act as a metaphor for the unseen in society, the lonely, the homeless or outsiders that many unidentified people inevitably were. 

Clothing and shoes directly and indirectly represent both people’s bodies and their identities. We choose what to wear each day, to both fit in or stand out. These are conscious decisions that define us and determine how we are perceived to others.

Items of clothing are also used to help with the identification of an individual and are listed within the entries on the missing persons database. Clothes are often kept after the death of a loved one, clothes and shoes are vessels or containers, acting as reliquaries that remind us who they belonged to. 

Shoes particularly embody the idea of transience or movement from one place to another, from one city to another, from life to afterlife, from existence to no longer existing. The saying ‘If the shoe fits’ refers to something being the truth about someone and of course Cinderella was identified because of a shoe!

Gelatine Bioplastic Adidas Trainer Shoe

Presence and Decomposition

Presence And Decomposition

My initial source of research is the UK missing persons database. At the time of writing there are 569 unidentified people listed.

Each is listed with a generalised location, description and any potential identifying features and/or belongings. Images are included if these are available/possible. These items and details are often incredibly poignant but not necessarily complete enough to enable identification, but the belongings do often show a small picture of the end of that life.

By conceptually exploring the unintended final resting spaces of the unidentified dead, I am looking for a liminal presence. Some of the remains listed on the database are discovered after bodies have been skeletonized and, as explained here in an article about human decomposition, in The Guardian ‘A decomposing body significantly alters the chemistry of the soil beneath, causing changes that may persist for years. Purging releases nutrients into the underlying soil, and maggot migration transfers much of the energy from a body to the wider environment. Eventually, the whole process creates a ‘cadaver decomposition island,’ a highly concentrated area of organically rich soil. As well as releasing nutrients into the wider ecosystem, the cadaver also attracts other organic materials, such as dead insects and faecal matter from larger animals.’ (Costandi, 2015)

Through this idea of a ‘decomposition island’, I began to consider the surrounding plant material from sites where human remains have been found. Without preservation, our bodies become nutrients, feeding the soil and nourishing plants that often begin to flourish because of the raised nutrient levels. Plants here appear to be the observers of these deaths. The conceptual absorption of decomposition continues indefinitely within plant material. As plants die back they enrich the soil once more.

Water too is an important aspect of this process. Our bodies are made up of more than 70% water. Water has always existed on earth in the same quantity, continually recirculating. Water has been a fundamental part of everyone who has ever existed, so it is in essence all the people who have been before us. The water and nutrients within our bodies become part of the surrounding environment, the decomposition island. This circular process of renewal creates a physical continuation of presence within space.