[detail of "OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" as it was being installed yesterday]
"They're wrapped in the material used to make sandbags. The sandbags always arrive when it's too late, don't they?" Susan C. Dessel was answering a friend's question about the outer layer of each of the pieces in her installation at Dam, Stuhltrager while she arranged the twelve differently-sized figures on the newly-sodded lawn behind the gallery building.
She bent over each wrapped figure, softly talking to the silent shapes and tenderly placing and positioning them (as family units?) according to a plan she had obviously been thinking about for a very long time.
Dessel had been with all of them from their birth. They were born in her creative mind and then throughout a very hot summer in her warm studio she had spent long hours shaping fully-formed individual bodies from the synthetic "clay" of the modern sculptor's bucket. In the end, like the countless victims of the hideous unnatural disasters they call up from our conscious or unconscious, individual or collective guilt, they were wrapped in blankets, sealed in plastic and laid back in our yard.
There the beauty of these veiled figures partially confounds the horror of their significance.
How does an artist work in the environment we have created? Dessel's sensitive installation invokes no specific wars; no specific catastrophes, whether the result of criminal negligence or deliberate policy; and no specific crusades embarked upon by an ignorant, manipulated and frightened populace, but it is clear these bodies do not represent natural deaths and that they have to be seen as our friends, neighbors and relations. Their presence here, in this very ordinary, even universal "backyard", speaks to the continuing personal responsibilty we share for their deaths. Even an artist cannot make them disappear, but a humble moral and bold political awakening now would mean that the dead could be given a proper burial, and it would shut down the slaughterhouses which threaten the living.
In reply to an email request I made earlier today, Susan responded within minutes with this wonderful description of her construction proces:
For the adults I began with the basic, but generic, form of female and male using mannequins as my models (three female, one male). The kids were made totally from freehand and for them I used cement and fiber glass bits.
I thought of each body as a representative individual, i.e., I did not give them names - I always bond with my pieces. The process is very important to me, and over the time that the whole piece takes from idea to research to selection of materials to actually making the work the work becomes a part of me. I think that most artists experience something similar.
I thought of each as a body type representing a human condition in a general situation. I made more females than males to represent the fact that it is the innocent (i.e., non-military, or what our government refers to as collateral) that are so often among the dead.
The forms (bodies) are made out of many layers of plaster gauze. (this is gauze already permeated with plaster that you dip into water to activate). I made each figure in two halves and then wrapped the gauze around the halves to create the whole.
I altered the forms after the initial body form was made (i.e., the first two layers or so of the gauze). For instance one woman is pregnant, another is fat, the others have slightly different bust sizes, arm and/or feet form/direction, body language. This is the same with the men, e.g. one of the men is emaciated. The infant, child, and adolescent are more based on size to represent stages in life than a particular body type or situation.
When the bodies were dry (you do recall the environmental challenges during the time I was working. UGH!), I covered each with two coats of marine shellac. This is for exterior use, primarily on boats. In particular I did this because the installation is an outdoor installation and it is sure to precipitate over the course of the exhibit.
This also eased my uncomfortableness with the fact that the plaster layers were basically white (as in caucasian). I wanted these forms to represent humanity not people of a particular background. So while none have dark skin the effect of the shellac was to turn them to shades that were creamy to light brown.
Also, as I do not believe that any of us is perfect (in any way. and how boring that would be, no?) there are lumps and drips and bumps, such as we each have.
The bodies that we see in print and the electronic media are wrapped in blankets and then sometimes in plastic. I selected medical emergency blankets that are used by EMS teams around the country. The color - amber, yellow, or whatever - represents to me caution and that was appropriate for the essence of the piece. Also the blankets are poly with about a 1/16" layer of foam on the backside. The blankets are wrapped around the whole body and the edges hand sewn into place.
I decided to use sand bag tarps for the outer layer, because of the elements over the duration of the exhibit and because it is fitting for dead bodies that are to remain unidentified and in the public eye.
Sand bags are usually used when a disaster has already started (to shore up the banks of a body of water, etc.) and often do not work to prevent a disaster. Thus it felt like a good fit. These were also hand sewn to close the openings and tied (self ties, i.e., also sand bag tarp material) in the fashion that dead bodies are tied. The size of the three non-adults is emphasized by the outer wrapping that hangs below (the feet) and above (the head) of the actual body form.
For a dignity which is very important and often not heeded, the outer covering is an attempt to protect the body when it is no longer able to protect itself, or even try to.