Would you wear and use a vintage pocket watch?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wearing the Dead -- Ossuaries and Memento Mori in Jewelry and Art

Memento mori -- it means "Remember thy death."

     Like them or not, memento mori, ossuaries, and other remembrances of mortality seem to have found a niche in the steampunk world.  
     I must admit that I do not care for the more gruesome pieces out there (I have no desire to display someone's deceased pet in my living room, thanks!).   But since I understand and sometimes even share the human desire to remember and honor the lives of those who have exited this humble plane, I have decided to address this subject briefly to give you a glimpse of what it is all about.  (There are many other pages on the internet to tell you about the large and elaborate ossuaries which have been created around the world, so I shall keep this post within the scope of jewelry and other small items.)

     For a large collection of embellished insect specimens, Mike Libby Insect Lab  is a source.  He takes parts from pocket watches, wrist watches, typewriters and sewing machines and combines them with non-endangered insects from the world over.  He will even customize a bug for you; "just ask" he says!

     This maker, NouveauMotley of the Etsy SteamTeam, has just about cornered the market on ossuaries for sale on Etsy.  The pocket watch cases are beautiful.

     Next, Julia de Ville takes the dead to a whole new level; her works are sold in exclusive galleries/studios around the world.  She uses precious metals to re-create body parts as jewelry, and also uses real carcasses.  (Note: If you are sensitive about seeing dead animals, do not visit her site.  There are some there.)  Personally, I skipped the section that displayed dessicated household pets, but here are photos of some of the prettier pieces I saw.

     In my opinion, if the artist's intent is to honor those who once lived, and that intent is clear in the piece, then it has value; if it is merely to shock and disgust the viewer without any apparent respect for the dead beings involved, then to me, the work has less value. (possible example - the dessicated baby animals, with no steampunk aspects included, in deVille's studio)

    Regardless of my own sensibility, if these artists created their pieces with the intent of reminding us of our own mortality, they have succeeded.  That said, you will probably not find many memento mori among my jewelry for sale in the near future, but lucky for those who like the art form, there are plenty of other places to purchase them.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow
Macbeth, Act V, Sc. V

For something quite humorous, apropos, and completely different, read the essay: "This Thing Called Death"  from the webcomic "Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire" by Phil Foglio, creator of the steampunk gaslamp fantasy comic Girl Genius.

Results of the Poll question on this topic: 
Should memento mori/ossuaries have a place in the steampunk genre?
68% of folk answered yes (17 votes), 0% answered no they do not, and the remaining 32% answered "maybe - if they are "not too graphic and have other steampunk aspects to them." (8 votes)

Thanks to all who voted!  Be on the lookout for the next poll.  =)

~ DS


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