The human hand is an intricate network of veins and arteries, muscles and bones. A woman’s hands, in particular, have historically performed myriad tasks connected to life and death. They plant gardens and bring in the harvest, knead bread and weave fabric. They usher life into this world through midwifery and out of this world through the washing of the deceased. They cultivate flowers on the graves of their loved ones. When those strong hands themselves die, their soft tissues dissolve into soil where they foster new life—fungus, insects, and plants. All that remain are lacy bones, weathered and white, bleached bare by the sun.
Lacy bones provide the foundation for the work of two artists, Caitlin T. McCormack and Hideki Tokushige, both of whom explore the connections between life, death, and the natural world through skeletal remains—be they textile or organic.
Caitlin T. McCormack
Working in her “nest-like” Philadelphia studio, McCormack picks apart the delicate handwork of previous generations of women. From dead objects such as time-eaten gloves and stained tablecloths, she pulls the thread—like a modern Penelope or an ancient muse—from which she creates delicate skeletons.
McCormack’s Bound, As It Were (2016) reveals a skeletal bird, ossified in mid-flight, as it rises up from a misshapen glove that once covered a woman’s hand—lace bound in lace.
In all of her pieces, McCormack uses the rotting detritus of the past to crochet a contemporary commentary on death and decay. The Web in Her Nest (2016), for example, reveals the delicate threads that link past and present, lace and bones.
Piety and Abomination (2016) draws on the primal connections between sex and death. Set against a sigil, a larger skeleton mounts a smaller one and grasps it by the nape. Preserved in glue, suspended beneath glass, trapped in time—the act is never completed. Will the victim be violently penetrated or consumed as food? Ultimately, perhaps, these are one and the same thing.
See Caitlin T. McCormack’s entire collection here.
Photographer and artist Hideki Tokushige has spent the past nine years traveling along the byways of Tokyo collecting dead animals. From these humble roadside remains he harvests organs and bones as the medium for his work—no-bana (brain flowers) and honebana (bone flowers).
Honebana is rooted in the Japanese practice of Ikebana—a word that can be translated as “giving life to flowers.” From the minute bones of corpses collected at the edge of human civilization, Hideki constructs intricate flowers of dead lace. The bone flowers are painstakingly assembled and then photographed in detail both in the studio and in a natural setting. Once they have been documented, they are crushed into dust and returned to the earth, completing the cycle of life and death.
Hideki’s “Lily” is constructed of ribs, jawbones, and vertebrae, with a skull serving as a new lily bud, ready to unfold. In the Japanese practice of Hanakotoba, or the language of flowers, the white lily is a symbol of purity and chastity. In the west, the lily is also a funeral flower used to represent the soul’s return to purity, even as the body returns to the soil. Purity in death and decay are manifest in Hideki’s photograph of his bone lily blooming in the shadows of an abandoned lot at the periphery of human awareness.
One of Hideki’s most intricate creations is his Chinese Lantern—a plant used to both ease the pains of pregnancy and adorn the graves of the deceased as a symbol of rebirth. It is a fleshy berry within a bony husk—the beating life in the desiccated body—life and death intertwined.
The profundity of Hideki’s Honebana is perhaps best expressed in his Cherry Blossoms—a flower that Japanese culture associates with joyfulness, sweetness, and gentility. Their blossoming heralds the coming of spring after the long, cold winter, and their arrival is awaited with anticipation across Japan. During their brief appearance, people partake in Hanami, or “blossom-peeping” and cherry-blossom (Sakura) flavored foods and drinks appear everywhere—much like the western obsession with autumnal pumpkin spice. There is even a Sakura-flavored latte at Starbucks.
Like their living counterpart, Hideki’s cherry blossoms are at once long to bloom and fleeting, soon to be ground to dust, never to return. Yet in their brief moment of existence, they are objects of aching beauty. In the eighth century, Yamabe No Akahito wrote this poem:
“For these few days, the hills are bright with cherry-blossom. Longer, and we should not cherish them so.”
The work of Hideki Tokushige and Caitlin T. McCormack reminds us that all life, like the cherry blossom, is but a momentary suspension of death. In touching that wonder, we live more fully, even as our own bone-lace slowly unwinds, longing for the grave.