I made a painting nearly 40 years ago in response to a family death. It seemed disrespectful and maudlin to some people at the time and because it was rejected I tucked it away along with some other odd little things I had worked on. It was recently seen and admired through the new young eyes of someone I respect, not for her art reviewing skills (because I don’t know her very well yet), but because she embraces an attitude to life that I was trying to communicate at the time. She is interested in taking care of the earth and planning spaces that help populations to live lightly on this planet so that there is enough for everyone. That’s what my painting was about too. I call it Reincarnation.
With a planet reaching 7 billion people some time in the next 50 years, that many headstones alone will choke the land of livable space, let alone arable land. Apparently there is only 7-10% of good arable land on the whole planet. We either need to increase our stocks of good arable land by better land treatment or we need to prevent good land from being locked up forever. We need creative thinking fast to cope with such a crisis, but people are so afraid to discuss this subject. Think about 7 billion headstones along with all the graves of all the people who have come before us and all the people who are to come after us. Grave sites are the stupidest most narcissistic inventions made by man.
A house may seem like an indulgence, or even a car, or other possessions but they can be used and reused long after we are gone. But a grave site? A patch of real estate that robs future generations for hundreds of years(sometimes thousands) of earth to grow and live on. And don't get me started on archaeologists who dig up old burial sites and then that land is tied up too.
We live in a digital age with amazing technology but bury our dead with the arrogance of Roman emperors. Our world is crying out for regeneration, and chemical free food and water with land enough for all the inhabitants not just humans but we keep locking up precious land with concrete beds for the dead, where no water can move through the soil and release our earth given goodness back for future generations.
There has been some forward thinking, in maybe 50 years but it is not the norm, and we still make concrete and stone memorials and mausoleums many times the volume of the body enclosed. In cultures where land has been vital to existence, different sustainable burial forms have evolved, which also reflect their spirituality. Maybe in this new age where science and the environment are becoming the new religion and or spirituality we may see sustainable death practices which are honourable and allow for continuing prosperity of people into the future. Cremation is space saving but uses fossil fuels to reach high temperatures equivalent to a bisque firing, with nothing but ash as a product. Instead of the endless debate about when does life begin, let us turn the discussion to when does dead mean gone and re contributing?
What does all this have to do with clay and ceramics you say? In my daily work with clay, I experience a form of meditation that goes deeply into the atomic level of the clay. I cannot help but think of aeons of time and life bound up in the material in my hands. Does the porcelain I use contain atomic matter from a courtesan or cockroach in an ancient Chinese or Japanese palace? Do the ground up materials that make my glazes contain atomic material made from prehistoric insects, plants and unicellular creatures? When I reclaim clay from failed designs or just throwing practice is there thought energy encapsulated in my clay?
When learning to wedge clay ( a physically demanding process to remove air pockets and align the clay particles before throwing) we were taught to treat it as a meditation and put our intentions into it. That simply means to rehearse the throwing process in your mind stepping through the choreography of throwing the piece you intend to make. Sometimes when approaching a sculpture however I have been astounded by the way the process has turned out. The clay has other intentions and even though I have begun to build a loosely formed idea, once I am totally in right brain mode (the Zone) I am no longer in charge of the process. I fantasise that I am being channelled by some other force.
This sculpture surprised me as much as anyone else because I feel I had little part in it. My intention was weak- I sort of planned to make a chimpanzee but another boat emerged and before long there were cormorants roosted all over it. It does come from my life and experience but the clay extracted it from me in a stream of consciousness process that I felt very loosely attached to.
Before we choke our earth let us use our brilliant human imaginations to step outside the box (or casket) and think of respectable life giving ways to cast off our mortal coils. Let us develop a new language for burial, like planting. Consider the traditional burial method based on the concept of sleep. I prefer to sleep in foetal position. I also tend to clutch things so for my last sleep I could think of nothing better than clutching a new plant and nurturing it with my body and to be the start of something new and beautiful like a forest that will house birds insects and animals and one day provide timber for housing and then room for a new human plant to grow. All my details could be kept recorded digitally on a QR code for anyone desperate enough to know of me, like the proximity readers at MONA and could be followed digitally in a walk through the forest, and like Facebook my other relatives could be linked in ever increasing circles so that a history could be quickly surveyed. There would be no hierarchy or religious separation, just a chronological separation beginning in the middle of the forest and spiralling out in Fibonacci series as is natural to many plants.
In my new life I could be tall and thin and silent .
In my new life I could be tall and thin and silent .