Memento Mori

I am working on a small installation in the abandoned cave house next to the Babayan Culture House in Ibrahimpasa, Cappadocia, Turkey, where I am Artist in Residence for the month of March 2009.  In this room a previous artist in residence, Stefan Chinov, had installed some cast concrete doors. My project, an intervention into his intervention, combines one version of my “Names” project and a Memento Mori still life using found objects.

Memento Mori

I have written the names of eight Turkish women and girls that I have met since staying in Ibrahimpasa on separate pieces of coloured 81/2 x 11 construction paper. Along with the stenciled names are rubbings, made with graphite and old patterned wooden blocks that were originally used to stamp floral designs onto headscarves. Each person’s sheet is a different colour, selected to represent some aspect of their character, and each rubbed pattern is configured differently, using two separate wood blocks. For example, Hanim’s piece is white, the colour of the headscarf she wears; Dilek’s is yellow, the colour of her hair; and Mediha’s is purple, the colour of the woolen socks she knitted. These sheets are attached with metal clips to a green line running from one cave wall to the other.

Below this line of names I have built a still life setting, using objects I collected from the neighbourhood. While out walking these past two weeks, I have seen many, many animal skulls and bones lying randomly on the ground. I have no idea why these bones are simply left lying. In some spots, a single skull sits by the path; in others, several skulls and assorted bits and pieces of bone, particularly leg bones, are clustered together. It is mysterious and a tad gruesome … I picked up several of the skulls and bones, as well as three wooden boxes, three clay urns, three metal objects, including a chain, and a pottery bowl full of empty roasted walnut shells. My intention is to photograph this installation in various lighting situations and to add and subtract elements from it as the days pass; for example, lit candles, glass of wine, fruit, flowers, and a clock.

More information about the Memento Mori:

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase meaning remember that we are mortal and we too will die. This injunction appears visually in the genre of western painting known as Vanitas Still Life and in Medieval and Renaissance Christian art. The idea here is that one should remember the brevity and futility of earthly existence and meditate on the eternity of the afterlife in which one will receive one’s just reward, whatever that might be.

To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements. The art historical genre of Vanitas paintings was most fully developed in 17th century Holland. Those images, of flowers, fruit, tiny insects, sometimes butterflies, smoking candles and occasionally skulls, were meant to be evocations of the transience of human existence. Such paintings are complex moral allegories which depict the vanity of all earthly desires. The flowers and the fruit are symbols of earthly beauty and its ephemerality, reminders that all material life disappears while the kingdom of heaven alone remains: “He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14:2). In a single image, painters would combine a universe of floral birth and death: buds, flowers in full bloom and flowers with drooping or fallen petals or being consumed by insects are all included in the composition to indicate the inevitable passage of time and the approach of death. The viewer of these paintings was thus meant to meditate on the transitory nature of human life and the power of God and History.

Note on Bones: Willemijn Bouwman, one of the two hosts here at the BCH, explained to me two reasons for the presence of so many bones and skulls in the village. First, there are four butchers here and to dispose of unusable material, they simply throw the bones and skulls of butchered animals over the cliff and down into the valley. Second, the Feast of the Sacrifice is celebrated here. Eid al-Adha or Feast of Sacrifice is the most important feast of the Muslim calendar. It concludes the Pilgrimmage to Mecca. Eid al-Adha lasts for three days and commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son. Muslims believe the son to be Ishmael rather than Isaac, as told in the Old Testament. Ishmael is considered the forefather of the Arabs. According to the Koran, Ibrahim was about to sacrifice his son when a voice from heaven stopped him and allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead.

The feast re-enacts Ibrahim’s obedience by sacrificing a bull, cow or sheep, from which the family eats about a third of the meal and donates the rest to the poor. The inedible remainders lie in the valley.

See more pictures here.

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