Matter Lent: The Photographs of Sally Mann

From Erika Ritter’s The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath:

Early in the twenty-first century, American photographer Sally Mann disinterred the year-old remains of her beloved pet greyhound, Eva, salvaged what fragments she could, and took them back to her studio to reassemble and photograph. Eventually, those photographic studies of Eva’s hide and bones became part of a larger exhibition Mann called “What Remains”.

That 2004 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery was subtitled “Matter Lent”. As art critic and scholar Alice Kuzniar points out, “Lent” conveys a sense of gravity, similar to the forty-day period of mourning called Lent that precedes the resurrection of Christ.

What Remains is a five-part series that explores the ineffable divide between body and soul, life and death, earth and spirit. The project visually depicts the eternal cycle of life, death, and regeneration. What Remains draws upon the artist’s personal experiences as inspiration for a haunting series about the one subject that affects us all: the loss of life and what remains.

The subtitle also serves to evoke the fleeting way in which pet animals – especially in view of their comparatively short lifespans – are “lent” to us, only to be taken away too soon by mishap, disease, or decrepitude. The bleakness of that little pile of bones and hair that Eva has dwindled down to in her posthumous photos strikes Kuzniar as “suggesting an unutterable, choking grief that can only put on display but not verbally express what essentially is a void.”

The text Sally Mann wrote to accompany the images of Eva’s remains documents her wanting to find out what had “finally become of that head I had stroked, oh ten thousand times, those paws she so delicately crossed as she lay by my desk, rock-hard nails emerging from the finest white hairs.”

Never one to shy away from challenging subject matter, Mann asks us in What Remains to contemplate the beauty and efficiency with which nature assimilates the body once life is over. Here she seamlessly connects the landscape of the earth to the topography of the body and examines how both are tightly interwoven. Yet she creates tension between the two. As the exhibition progresses, portrait faces of her children emerge from the darkness of the alchemical photographic process, surrounded by murky images of the landscape, as if struggling to become free of the earth that inevitably reclaims the body.

For humans in general, the extent to which we summarize animals in terms of their physical essence may cause us to treat their remains either as enormously significant or as completely inconsequential. On one end of the spectrum, there are pet cemeteries and Sally Mann’s photographed remains of her beloved Eva’s bones. On the other end, there’s the commodified carcass hung in the butcher’s window or the meaningless tuft of fur on the roadside that once was a chipmunk.

Discussion of the exhibition at Artnet.

Image: Sally Mann, Untitled #17, 2003.

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