There is a tactile quality to the series of portraits on view at Ubu Gallery in Manhattan, a grainy texture that is difficult to capture in photographs. Through a delicate mixed media process, artist Heide Hatry has created these images from the cremated remains of the subjects, mixing loose ashes with birch coal, white marble, and beeswax to delicately work these particles of the dead into grayscale impressions. As she states in the accompanying catalogue for Icons in Ash: Cremation Portraits, the viewer is “actually looking at that person” when witnessing their likeness.
Those familiar with the New York-based German artist’s startlingly visceral work, such as pigskin heads or scenes of dead animals caught in oil and tar, may be surprised at the quiet nature of Icons in Ash, which are more contemplative in their consideration of death. Yet due to their material, that unease with mortality is still confronted. She notes in the catalogue, which explores our relationship with death through essays by 27 authors, that the Icons in Ash project formed when she was coping with the loss of both her father, and a close friend who committed suicide. She writes:
In Icons in Ash I want to reintegrate life and death: to touch death, work with death, to be an artist of and for death, to let it speak in its mundanity, its grandeur, its familiarity and its mystery, its uniqueness and its universality, to redeem it from oblivion, to give it its own life again. For me, this is a fundamental act of reconciliation. Though it may be commonplace to say that in the modern era we have isolated or banished death from our lives, that we cannot bear to look it in the face, as if we are embarrassed by it, the simple fact of grief makes it obvious that a different relationship is not only possible, but that it is necessary.
As explored in the recent exhibition on 19th-century posthumous portraiture at the American Folk Art Museum, the use of art to recall a lost loved one’s face has long been a part of grief. Shortly after the introduction of photography, postmortem photographs became popular, these sometimes strange visions of corpses often being the first and only image a loved one might have to remember. Now the preference for cremation is continuing to rise, particularly in the United States. In 2015, according to Time magazine, cremation overtook traditional burial in this country for the first time.
Although even the best embalming will give way to decay, cremains, if not buried beneath a monument or encased in a columbarium, can feel more ephemeral as a memorial, so endeavors like jewelry for ashes, memorial tattoos with ash-infused ink, or even an underwater reef of ash-embedded sculptures have emerged. Hatry is not the first artist to elevate these remains into art, or engage with them as an emotionally charged material. Artist Zefrey Throwell has used his father’s ashes mixed with the meth that killed him for mixed media works on the complexity of family memory, while Wafaa Bilal scattered human ashes on his scale reproductions of destruction in Iraq. And Jill Magid altered the ashes of modernist architect Luis Barragán into a diamond.
Importantly, all of the subjects featured in Hatry’s portraits were used with consent, either from the deceased or the family. (And they are not for sale, but she does take commissions.) As a highly personal memorial object, though, what can they mean to a viewer when displayed as art? A couple of the portraits are surrounded by possessions to hint at their living identities. For the most part, these people are anonymous, their haunting presence more moving as a memento mori and reminder of our shared grappling with private loss.