If I told you that disembodied human arm bones reaching out of a ceramic vessel were part of a sculptural installation, what would come to mind? Campy horror flicks? Corny plastic Halloween decorations?
The arm bones are part of a gallery installation by Miya Hannan. Their physical characteristics resemble the ones used in silly fall yard decor and scary movies: lifelike proportions, a realistic off-white hue and an unmistakably human gesture—elbow bent, fingers curled toward the ceiling. But they exist in a different realm than the ones from the party supply shop. It’s a quiet, somber realm where Hannan confronts notions of death without relying on an ounce of camp.
For Hannan, witnessing death was once an ordinary occurrence. In her native Japan, she worked as a radiation technologist, taking CAT scans, X-rays and MRIs—and occasionally losing a patient.
“I think seven years of looking at X-rays was a big influence on me,” she said. A statement on her web site reads, “I was a scientist in a country with many superstitions, which gave me the ability to perceive the world from two contrasting perspectives.”
Even though she hadn’t yet considered becoming an artist, she adopted a kind of visual language in her mind, often recognizing patients not by face or name, but by the shapes of their organs or bones.
After seven years in medical technology, thinking she’d take a hiatus, Hannan moved to San Diego and enrolled in English classes at a community college. An advisor told her that in order to stay enrolled, she’d need to choose a major.
“I took one drawing class to test out and see if I liked it or not,” Hannan said. “That changed my life.”
She picked up drawing easily. “Because I was struggling with English, visualizing my idea was a good outlet,” she said. “In a classroom, in a critique, I didn’t need to say much because my drawing told a story.” She finished community college with an associate’s in art, moved to San Francisco, earned a master’s and is now an art professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
In Hannan’s gallery installation, now on view in the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, about 60 funeral urns sit on a wooden floor, atop a thick layer of white, powdery ash. The ash is made from cattle bones. It’s a readily available material used in the production of bone china, but here it’s a stand-in for the real bone ash that people in Japan keep in home shrines for 49 days after a family member passes away.
Fragments of rib cages and spinal columns poke out from the urns. Above them, hundreds of cast epoxy resin copies of the sphenoid bone—a butterfly-shaped bone inside the skull, behind the eye—hang suspended on threads. The walls are lined with long sheets of paper, marked only with burnt-away, sphenoid-shaped holes that look like flocks of sparrows in flight. The visual barrage of white plays a trick on the eye, making the air in the room look hazy, enough so that you might be tempted to look for a fog machine set to low or a humidifier set to high, but there isn’t one.
The installation required an obsessive amount of labor—Hannan cast, built and arranged hundreds of pieces—yet it exudes an eerily comfortable sense of resignation and calm. It’s clear that Hannan has confronted the notion of death, looked it up and down with an archaeologist’s drive to uncover and classify things, and finally let it settle in as a part of her reality.