Natalie Ryan > Imaging the Dead
The photographs and sculptures presented in Imaging the Dead have been inspired by Natalie Ryan’s life-long fascination with death and her on-going mission to grapple with the way death is represented and discussed. Ryan is motivated by a desire to open up conversations about death and to explore the ways in which our perception of death is governed by the context within which we encounter its forms.
These works are a result of Ryan’s study of animal specimens in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary & Agricultural Sciences. The superb technical skill and the compelling beauty of Ryan’s works come from a deep engagement with the subject matter and her extensive technical training. In 2005, Ryan undertook a course in facial reconstruction headed by a forensic sculptor at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. Following this, Ryan taught an anatomical drawing class at Monash University using human cadavers from the Anatomy Museum at Clayton Medical Department. As well as completing a PhD in 2013, titled Imaging the Dead: The Cadaver in Western Culture and Contemporary Art, Ryan has sculpted tombstones and worked with taxidermy.
A childhood illness resulting in lengthy hospitalisations followed by the sudden death of her father also contributed to Ryan’s drive to immerse herself in the study of death. For Ryan, this focus was a way of trying to relieve the fear and silence around the topic, as well as better preparing herself and others for the difficult but inevitable event that someone close to us will die.
“I have a huge respect for life and I’ve always found death incredibly confronting … there’s so much emotion there and I’m trying to get close to it, but also to keep a distance, it’s a weird contradiction and a push and pull that’s a way of coping with death.” 1
Whereas certain death-related industries, such as funerary services, medical research laboratories, or museums often seek to sanctify, sterilise or dehumanise death in a way that can be alienating, Ryan aims to make artwork that embraces the emotional, subjective and varied responses that death evokes.
Ryan has not publicly presented photographs of this kind before. Previous to this exhibition, photography has been more of a tool used in the process of planning the construction and form of her sculptures. Her sculptural practice is informed by hundreds of images of the skeletal and muscular structures of specimens, as well as encounters with living animals. Ryan can spend over 100 hours on one work, and days just on one aspect such as the nostrils or eye sockets. She develops an intimate relationship with each sculpted animal and the rendering of the animals’ features is both sombre and tender.
Ryan’s deep love and respect for animals is palpable when encountering her sculptures, which appear almost as deities, immaculately embellished with gold and other lustrous finishes. The works are above all about honouring the animals that they depict. Ryan has said, “I have always had complete admiration for animals. If I wasn’t an artist, I would have followed a career path that involved their welfare in some capacity.”2 In line with Ryan’s veneration of animals, her works also aim to raise questions about the use and abuse of animals. The photographs particularly, allow us to see with great clarity that we are all made of the same stuff, a fact that incites a reassessment of the inequitable relationship between humans and animals.
Though she embraces the scientific genesis of her works, Ryan’s primary motivation is emotional. Her transformative sculptural process of re-embodiment demonstrates an urge to give back what has been taken away. The photographs and the sculptures provide an intimate counterpoint to one-another in that the sculptures present the whole animal, its innards once more concealed beneath their skin. Their reconstruction allows a sense of connection, as their representation comes closer to that of a living creature. Their individuality is returned along with their missing body parts, and so Ryan reconstitutes the animals in more ways than one. She returns the physical parts that are missing, but she also returns sentience to our encounters with them.
Though the sculptures provide a more approachable incarnation of the specimen photographs, they still bare an underlying disquiet. In Untitled (sheep with gold tongue) (2018), the tongue is finished in gold, which is a reference to the photograph Untitled (sheep jaw) (2018), where only the tongue, jaw and teeth remain. In its tense gape, the open mouth of the sculpted sheep evokes the sound of pained cry. Likewise, the sculpture Untitled (gold horse head) (2018) partially reforms the specimen. But whilst the beautiful golden lustre and full form of the sculpture give a sense of opulence, the two halves are still separated. Hence, the sculpture bears witness to the slicing that is manifest in the photograph Untitled (horse heads) (2018), which presents each side of the same segment.
Ryan considers both the photographs and the sculptures to be portraits of the animal, even the depictions of the cow stomach. Portraits traditionally aim to capture an essential quality of their subject and part of Ryan’s work is to strip away the layers of what that might be. Why is it that the face is understood to be a more valid representation of a subject, what makes certain parts more important than others? Ryan describes the cadaver as “a secondary image of the once living form, an image that is familiar and yet foreign”3 and the poignancy of Ryan’s works relies on their embodiment of both presence and absence. Ryan’s coupling of the sculptures with photographs encourages viewers to cross the boundary lines between the living and the dead. What is it that death takes away from the body that remains, and how much of the body has to be removed before the animal becomes just a specimen, or an abject piece of meat and bone?
Within the gallery, our experience of death imagery is modified and codified, and Ryan’s works purposefully distort semiotic boundaries to raise questions about why we respond negatively to some images and not others. Although Ryan’s photographic images of specimens are very different from those that we might find in a biology textbook, there are some similarities, which allow the works play with our expectations and responses. The specimens float within the picture planes, as they might in formaldehyde, they are disembodied and isolated in time and space. Yet, these specimens have been freed from their jars and boxes, liberated from the laboratory and taken away from the medical context that confined their purpose to objective study. As artworks, these images are imbued with a broader purpose, they ask more of us as viewers, and they take on a metaphysical urgency as they push us to confront our own existence as mortal flesh.
Text courtesy of Linden New Art