“Matching Picture” is a new series on Double Scoop, in which reviewer Josie Glassberg gives an emotional read on a favorite piece. This month, the artwork is “Story of the Sphenoid Bone” from Miya Hannan’s Underfoot exhibition at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon.
There’s this white room. In the middle of the room is a thin layer of white dust that looks like ground up bones. Sitting on the dust are 60 white ceramic urns with partial skeletons ascending out of the openings. Ladders of bones—a femur and a pelvis, a pelvis and a spine, a skull. Above the jars are hundreds of flying vertebrae that look like butterflies. I’m not sure why, but it is especially bright in the room and the light is casting bone butterfly shadows on the walls.
My notes for Miya Hannan’s “Story of the Sphenoid Bone” installation read like a strange dream. Something created by my subconscious during the long drive out to Fallon, where—around the one-and-a-half hour mark—miles of gray highway give way to a temporary boneyard inside Oats Park Art Center. One minute you’re listening to Science Friday, and the next you’re looking at the bones that represent your own mortality.
Like a lot of people who grow up in Western culture, my relationship with death has its foundations in denial and dread. Best case scenario, we bury our dead and move on, possibly adopt a rewards-based view of the afterlife. Worst case, we are haunted by a combination of the holes our loved ones leave behind and an impending fear of being swallowed up by nothingness or eternal punishment. It’s stress-inducing to believe stuff like that, so I don’t anymore. Over the years I’ve done a lot of work to chip away at the psychological effects of the following:
- Unhelpful religious beliefs. (Hell, transaction-based salvation; being scared of the black void in Genesis)
- Children’s book-based beliefs. Living with a childhood fear of appendicitis that grew out of the Madeline books and then almost dying of appendicitis; Shiloh, Old Yeller, Little Ann, Old Dan, White Fang and all other fictional dog deaths that felt very real)
- Unavoidable trauma. (Watching Meat Your Meat on early YouTube; childbirth as a precursor to the pain of death; family death)
- Miscellaneous. (Forgetting deceased loved ones; meaninglessness; what if outer space is the afterlife?)
Being OK with death is always going to be an uphill battle but—somehow—Hannan’s bones are helping me deal with two of my three Category 4 fears. First, just knowing that my anxiety around meaninglessness and family forgetting are still very much there is good information for me to have. Second, I can’t think of a better death picture than light-washed bones rising up, pulling away from their bodies, and turning into collective butterflies.
When I go, someone else will prepare my body for death and find traces of me everywhere at first and then nowhere. They could make meaning out of my life. But I will be like one of Hannan’s vertebrae butterflies, and I will either know it or not.
Miya Hannan’s exhibition Underfoot is on display at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon through March 23.