Blood, bones, hair and soap…

bones5a    bones4abones3a

There is an awful intimacy to drawing on bones.

These are the bones of a dolphin. As I plot and mark or discover each slight nuanced gradient with my pen or pencil I feel as if I am probing into an unspeakable salty truth. But there is also something overwhelmingly awe inspiring in the intricacy of the structure of the bone. The bones fit in an astoundingly precise sequence to create what once was its back bone. Each one is perfectly sculpted, strong, resilient, yet with an unexpected delicacy.

bone blk wht

This is the second time I have worked with bones, “Blood, Bones and Hair” 2009 was inspired by “Women Who run with Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Her book spoke so eloquently about the potency of these familiar materials. It moved me deeply and I wanted to convey something of what she was talking about in my work.

To express a deep sense of honouring I covered the bones with gold leaf. The lucent red background is indicative of blood, vibrancy, life. My hair knotted and twisting on the background are the/my strands of inbetween, not alive, not dead. All held in the mandala, allowing both death and life, longing and silence, permanence and impermanence, to exist in one piece.

Blood Bones and Hairedit

Blood, Bones and Hair   2009                                                                                                                                                                 Susan Moir Mackay                                                                                                                                                                                     (mixed media)

I like using bones. Something so stark about the truth they bring. Yet there is layers to that message, like the filigree of the bones themselves.

Working with bones is an ancient activity. Bones have been used for infinite practical uses as well as more esoteric. They are inevitably imbued with symbolism, how can one look at a bone and not be immediately reminded of mortality? Being the hidden structure within mammals, they have an implicit message of the core nature of things and of course, things that are hidden, secret.  Bones also have a substantial longevity beyond flesh.

Can we dare to look at the bones of things? To see the beauty of the stories that bones hold? To listen to their wisdom?

Pinkola Estes says:

“La Loba, the old one in the desert, is a collector of bones. In archetypal symbology, bones represent the indestructible force. They do not lend themselves to easy reduction. They are by their structure hard to burn, nearly impossible to pulverise. In myth and story, they represent the indestructible soul-spirit. We know the soul-spirit can be injured, even maimed, but it is very nearly impossible to kill”

She goes on to say they can represent an essential part of oneself, longing to be revivified.

Cleaning the Mirror  1995   Maria Abramovic.  Video Installation


I recently saw Marina Abramovic’s “Cleaning the Mirror” video installation.

With five small monitors placed ontop of each other to mimic the stature of a human, we watch as Abramovic scrubs a human skeleton clean with soapy water. The video is shot simultaneously so we can see each part being cleaned from the skull down to the metatarsals.

This piece is profoundly moving. There is an intimacy to the anonymous skeleton. There is love in the act of cleaning that resonates as any ritual ablutions or purification of the body/soul.

The anonymous skeleton becomes a surrogate of Abramovic and the viewer. We are confronted, in a possibly brutal way, of our inevitable demise. However the tenacity with which Abramovic cleans each little part of the skeleton, almost as if washing a lover, brings a simple tenderness.

There is an association with past rituals where death was a more integral part of society – this video installation is almost re-initiating  us (western society) to the mostly forgotten ritual of honouring the dead (and rebirth) like Day of the Dead, Santa Muerte, or ancestor veneration found in many other cultures all around the world.

cleaning mirror

The unknown skeleton Abramovic uses also becomes the embodiment of our collective ancestors. She takes on the act of veneration for us. And we can watch and listen to the sounds of the soft brush, wet with soap, scour the skeleton and hear her breath as a concurrent chorus through each of the monitors.

On another level, it is also a searching for our bones, our essential nature that in busy, modern life is so easily misplaced.  She tenderly washes away the detritus of life and rediscovers a crucial truth – who we really are – literally  in our marrow.

In a contemporary space like the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, such a piece brings us back to the ‘bare bones’ of our existence, it fundamentally reminds us of our relationship with death, life and self. It poses questions about our own essential nature. It brings a deeply human act into the parameters of the gallery.

Provoking, yet gently lulling – a lilting song of being human.


  1. What a beautiful, touching in depth portrayal of the nature of bones, life, death and what moves inside us on a hidden level supporting our every gesture and what remains in the physical when the invisible impetus for movement is gone. I love what you wrote here.

  2. What a great post! I am glad to see you back in full force! To my disappointment, SNGMA was closed for re-hanging the day I went to visit, walking all the way there in the drizzle. I would have seen Marina Abramovich’s piece there. One day your writings and your works will be published in a big glossy book – mark my words.

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