Mantra for the dead

Written April 13, 2020. Allowing my thoughts to lead me…

In 2017 on a residency in Italy, I made cyanotypes from star maps. Well, they made themselves really, I just provided the materials and helped them along. Right away I knew I wanted to do something large, so laid out a grid of 9 squares, sections of stars from across the sky on a large section of cotton fabric.

The fabric was purchased with great difficulty and Google translate from an older woman in the lower village of Atina, down a long hill from where we were staying in the upper village overlooking the valley. (She made minimal effort to understand my needs, and my face was sore from so much smiling to try to convince her I was worth it. I left her shop elated and exhausted, as if I’d achieved something momentous.)

I once exhibited this piece as an artwork, almost as an afterthought. It is a magical work full of happy accidents. A window into the universe. Light rays radiate outward from the centre square (the results of drying in uneven coating whilst laying over a plastic garden chair in the dark overnight). But I have never felt like it is a finished piece. It lies in wait for the next intervention.

I have been tracking the numbers of dead in this horrific pandemic. First Italy, then elsewhere, and finally the UK. Or perhaps not finally (it continues to spread and intensify), but that is where I’ve landed for now. In humankind’s grander scheme, these numbers are small, tiny – but they are shocking because they feel so indiscriminate. Because they affect our most vulnerable. Because they can equally, though much less frequently, be us.

I’ve been planning to work with some smaller cyanotypes this week for another project, looking at ways to combine words and images. But suddenly I feel overcome with the need to stitch these numbers into these night skies. Testimonies of an experience. A physical memory of the lives lost or altered that is more present than the numbers I read on paper. A memory keeper and an artwork that takes on the energy of my fingers’ movements, the emotion in my heart as I sit with and stitch those numbers. That places us as humans – important, individual, unique – within the vast beauty of the wider universe.

After the residency in Italy I made new artworks overlaying individual cyanotype star maps with images of my breast tissue and the lining of my womb – We Are All Made of Stardust: Matters of Scale. Perhaps this new work links back to that. A body merging with the stars. People returning to the stars.

This is a work that is a performance in its making. An action. A shout. A whisper. A cry. An invocation for the living. A mantra for the dead.

Synonyms for the dead: breathless, cold, deceased, demised, departed, fallen, gone, late, lifeless, nothingness, sleep, PURE LOVE
Antonyms for the dead: alive, animate, breathing, existence, existing, going, life, live, living, presence, PURE LOVE

In Memoriam, work-in-progress, panel 1