Proposal title: Making the Dead Matter: Explorations in Anthropology, Art and Material Culture
Goals and context: Based in the Orkney Islands, this project combines academic writing and audio-visual media, with a view to developing artistic, literary and social practices capable of acknowledging and manifesting a material presence for the dead alongside that of the living. I shall explore some of the ethical and practical implications of this theme both through articles and conference presentations and through a series of exhibitions and audio-visual collaborations with Land Art Papa Westray, a group of artists based on the island of Papa Westray, Orkney, drawing on local histories of relations between the living and the dead (folklore, archaeological sites etc.) and on direct engagement with the material environment (not least the interplay between land and sea) to produce work in a variety of media. The aim is to suggest that we are reminded by our encounters with the dead not only of our own mortality but also of our materiality as an element of our being that is at once familiar and alien. The dead make us aware that the matter that constitutes our bodies and forms the substrate of our feelings, perceptions and thoughts has an existence that precedes and exceeds our existence as individuals. Recognition of our immersion and participation in the anonymous and impersonal life of matter thus entails an acceptance of change as a constant, an acceptance that things could always be otherwise and that everything that is is forever in the process of becoming something else. As such it demands an affirmation of social life itself as an ongoing and collective project of self-making involving an artful and respectful complicity with powers and presences extending beyond the human estate.
Keywords: Art, Anthropology, Death, Materiality
This research has thus far furnished the basis of two chapters forthcoming in edited volumes - Transcultural Montage (Berghahn 2012) and Death, Materiality and the Origins of Time (Ashgate 2012) for an invited public lecture at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (April 2011) and for conference presentations in Cambridge (Reconsidering Detachment, June 2009) and Montreal (American Anthropological Association, November 2011). My current project builds upon this work by extending its thematic concerns into an exploration of other media - including photography and film - and through collaborations with visual artists based in Orkney with whom I have established contacts during the preceding years. This will take the form of ongoing dialogues to be conducted through a variety of media, of participation in a collaboratively organized art festival to be held annually on the island of Papa Westray, Orkney and of conference presentations and journal articles.
Department of Anthropology/Institute for Global Studies
University of Minnesota