Multispecies Archaeology I / Multispecies Mourning (2019)
Collecting bones my partner consumes, turning them into a porcelain urn

Fig. 1 Exhibition view, “Collecting bones my partner consumes, turning them into a porcelain urn”, Practices of Approximation, Temporary Gallery Cologne4


        For this project, I collected bones of non-human animals my partner had eaten. I calcined them at 1000 degrees Celsius, turning them into bone ash. Then, I used the ash to form a porcelain object.


[...] What counts as a livable life and a grievable death? (Butler 2006) 

There are people who are in relationships of complicity to, for example, the meat industry, by their demand for goods that are produced under certain conditions. How can coexistence and the relationship between people with different concepts of action (for example, those who reject products of animal origin, and those who consume them on the other hand) be possible or designed in a dialectic-affective way?
        I am exploring these questions by looking at my own relationships, engaging—inaudible—dialogues with my partner, the animals’ remains and others involved. The main part consists of the collection of bones that are connected with my partners consumption of animal-products, establishing this as a ritual/habit and thinking about politics of mourning and remembering—grievability in the context of human-animal relations. This self-reflective research process is materialised through a porcelain urn, raising questions of usability (using others and the suffering of being useful) and framing the process aesthetically.
        This work is always in progress. As long as the relationship between me and my partner—and similar relationships between others—continues, this issue will persist, shift, change or even disappear. 


Industrial use of bones is opaque: photographic film and paper, cellular concrete, matches, sandpaper, pigments for painting, bullets, and extra calcium yoghurt are examples for more or less unexpected encounters with processed bones. The use of bones in porcelain is an European tradition and is therefore connected to the emergence of Bone China in 18th century England. The country was in need of materials it could not produce by itself or in its colonies. Kaolin—also known as china clay—, was one of these materials and is essential to the production of porcelain. Thomas Frye began substituting bones – highly available at this time in England. Therefore, the worlds first documented proposal of using bone ash for manufacturing porcelain can be found in Thomas Fryes (Bow Porcelain Company) second patent:

On Nov. 17, 1749, Thomas Frye, of the parish of West Ham in the Co. of Essex, painter, for a new method of making a certain ware, which is not inferiorin beauty and fineness, and is rather superior in strength, than the earthenware that is brought from the East Indies, and is commonly known by the name of China, japan, or porcelainware." Animals, vegetables, and fossils, by calcining, grinding and washing, are said to produce an insoluble matter, named virgin earth, but some in greater quantities than others, as all animal substances, all fossils of the calcareous kind, as chalk, limestone, &c.: take therefore any of these classes, calcine it, grind and wash it in many waters [...] (Chaffers 1876)

In most restaurants we visited, trying to get the corresponding bones of the meal (eg bone soup) or any bone at all was vain endeavour. The bones most likely never reached the kitchen, are part of a distribution chain, or were already thrown away. However, upon others a Chinese restaurant in Vienna could provide us with the bones connected to the soups my partner ate. I documented them (one particular photograph is part of the installation) and conserved them on ice until the cremation took place. Later in the process, my partner helped me out by asking particular restaurants staff for “her” bones. 


        On Friday, November 30, 2018, I prepared the first bones for cremation. The smell was too strong and the smoke too poisonous, so it always had to fire over the weekend when no one was working at the University’s basement, where the kilns are located.
          The calcined bones were ready to be taken out of the kiln after 6 hours. The numerous sets of either sheep or cattle bones were being calcined at 1000° Celsius. Before the burning, the bones were dried using a flat heating curve—one hour at approximately 80° Celsius.
            Bones transition from their normal condition and a greyish colour to a charred and finally calcined state. During cremation, there are processes of deformation and fragmentation due to heat-induced shrinkage, as well as chemical modification due to combustion and pyrolysis of chemical substances. The degree of modification increases with rising temperatures and includes degradation of DNA. (Imaizumi 2015)

Fig. 2 Bones in the kiln at around 200° celcius. 
Fig. 3 Bones in the kiln at around 200° celcius.

After calcining, the bones were mostly porous, white, with some brown or grey spots (most likely due to the air still inside the kiln). The bones partially being extremely hard, makes the process of grinding by hand especially tiring. I spent hours pestling using a large porcelain mortar; then using water to bind the already pulverised material.
          This grinding process, being meditative and stressful at the same time, left me much time to think about the individuals’ remains I am working with right now. Questions seemingly impossible to answer. If I would deal with bones differently if they were human? My mouth and nose are getting dry. Air — mixed with fine bone dust — is filling up my lungs. 
           The outcome of the process was mostly fine bone ash, but with still some bigger pieces, my decision was to not screen it.

Fig. 4 Bones after calcination

Fig. 5 Bones, mortar and pestle


        The design process—with it the decision to create an urn—started before my working with bones. This rendering (fig. 6) shows an impeccable, industrially produced object. The remains are not visible—neither on the outside nor on the inside. There is no trace.
        During the research process I was looking into historic aspects of death ritual related vessels in different parts of the world. Additionally I studied contemporary ceramics including exhibition catalogues on urn-related exhibitions. But instead of using old, modern or creating new ornaments, I decided to think more about form, lines and function. I was influenced by notions of usability (Brauchbarkeit) and its reflection in ancient Chinese philosophy—especially the Zhuangzi 庄子:

The region of Jingshi in Song is fine for growing catalpas, cypresses, and mulberries. But those that are more than one or two arm lengths around are cut down for people who want monkey perches; those that are three or four spans around are cut down for the ridgepoles of tall roofs; and those that are seven or eight spans are cut down for the families of nobles or rich merchants who want side boards for coffins. So they never get to live out the years Heaven gave them but are cut down in midjourney by axes. This is the danger of being usable. (Watson 2013)

The design of the urn includes references which make it immediately appear as an urn in the context of contemporary or even future rituals of mourning and remembrance. The urn is divided in the lower middle, which still enables the function of storing things but also to use each of the two parts as eg a vessel for eating. It can be used to keep ash, but instead, the ash is part of the object.
          Because the object is an artwork, it will never be usable for others, just useful for itself. This brings with it troublesome dialectics of substance/essence 體 (ti3) and utilization 用 (yong4) / 無用 (wu3yong4). (Heubel 2016, 79)  

Fig. 6 Rendering Urn I, Vray

After the object’s size, form and colour were set, I had to decide on a porcelain recipe/mixture with little impact on colour, keeping the object relatively white, even when burned in an oxidizing kiln. The next steps were again took place at the ceramics studio of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. This includes the creation of the plaster model and moulds at the plaster workshop, as well as the casting. My partner, who joined me already for the cremation of the bones, was taking part in these steps again, documenting the process. 

Before porcelain can be poured into the plaster mould, it has to be stirred up by hand until no air bubbles are rising up to the surface anymore. It has to feel nice and smooth.
While my hand is working within the cold, thick fluid, including the small bone fragments—it almost feels like a body peeling—I am thinking about assemblages, about my skin cells migrating into the mixture, becoming porcelain, later being burned away during the early stages of firing.


        The casting process consists of many steps and includes long drying-phases. Here you can find a technical documentation of the casting process ︎ 

Fig. 8 Process of reworking the urn before burning. Ceramics Studio, University of Applied Arts Vienna.

The object has to be reworked after drying to remove the seam created by the two parts of the mold as well as drops left on the inside walls of the object. I realised, that the small pieces bones became even more visible after this step. 
        The porcelain is then burned at 1220 degrees Celsius. Aluminium oxide is used to prevent the two parts from sticking together or to the ground.

Taking out the finished objects at around 50° celcius
Fig. 9 Finished objects in the kiln, at around 50° celcius


        For I was grinding the bones by hand, many small bone parts are still visible in the urn and did not merge with the porcelain mixture. Hereby the animals’ role as absent referents is transformed into one with a distinct presence. In an Exhibition, in Berlin, I made this aspect especially visible, by presenting just the urn with a photograph, sacred and focussed. In Cologne and Düsseldorf I showed an installation with two urns—one of which made out of bone porcelain, the other just being sanitary ceramic, showing no signs of deformation. Additionally, I chose to show the bones I did not grind but preserved. Through the way of displaying them, I am provoking notions of archaeological sites and historico-cultural museums of future-societies. These forms of installation co-exist and still are flexible, depending on the exhibitions concepts and rooms. 
        The bone-ash urn is extremely precious to me. I have the plaster models, so I could recast, but the bones for me are in no way replaceable, not ready-made materials (like some artists actually understand dead animals bodies). That is also, why I was present very often during the exhibitions’ opening hours.

Fig. 10 Installation at MEINBLAU Berlin, Fig. 11 Bone Documentation I


“Mourning” I define as processes of thinking about a lost subject and its connection to oneself and the world in a variety of ways: the realisation of one’s own mistakes, recalling shared memories, accompanied by sadness, grief, abstract feelings of being lost, helpless and alone, ultimately facing one’s own death. Rituals can enable the channelling of these feelings into objects. The “presence in absence” (Fuchs 2018) of lost subjects, emerging by processes of mourning, becomes even more powerful through these “mourning-objects”.

As Thomas Attig puts it, mourning is a process of “relearning the world” (Attig 1996, 107-8). Multispecies Mourning is the Utopia of mourning-with in multispecies contexts. This productive mourning creates the potentiality to lead into states of becoming-the-mourned in the sense of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “becoming-animal”, which leads to a distinct Mourning-together. These processes bear the potential of “re-learning” the world as a multispecies habitat.

Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction. (Rose, VanDooren 2013)

For me, like for VanDooren, my work is not just about mourning. In addition, it is itself an act of mourning. (VanDooren 2014 p. 126) In just not giving up the animals’ remains to be forgotten, working with them, merging with them, I was part of a highly productive mourning-process that is still ongoing while telling these stories about the dead and dying.

        I was deeply inspired by Judith Butlers and Susan Sontag’s thoughts on how we watch the torture of others. Mourning deaths of precarious life is not forbidden, but most of them are just not “seen” (Butler 2009, 100) or even made invisible.

Let me open up Butlers concepts of un/grievability to our relation with other-than-human-beings. Here, we do not even see, not even care about particular deaths when directly confronted with body-parts in supermarkets or on our plates. This un/grievability reflects the value of their lives:

“Only under conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters.” (Butler 2009, 14)

To conclude, I want to emphasise, that for some individuals, there is neither right nor possibility to mourn their dead. Full of fear, enduring torture, witnessing others’ deaths, the temporality of death and dying is being altered at slaughterhouses. There, no mourning is possible. They cannot mourn their own and will not be mourned by others. 

Fig. 11 Detail of installation at “Goodbye Cruel World, It’s Over”, Weltkunstzimmer, Düsseldorf

Project details
Supervisors: Prof. Ute Hörner, Prof. Mathias Antlfinger, Academy of Media Arts, Cologne (Kunsthochschule für Medien)
Supervisors (Ceramics): Sen. Lect. Mag. art. Maria Wiala; Sen. Lect. Mag. Ing. Peter Platzer; Sen. Lect. Mag. art. Martina Zwölfer, University of Applied Arts Vienna
Timeframe: Late 2018 — Early 2019

This project was in parts realised during my ERASMUS+ studies at University of Applied Arts Vienna (Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien in 2018/19.

Appearances Group Exhibitions
︎We, Animals, cur. Anne Hölck, Meinblau project space Berlin, 2019 
︎Practices of Approximation (Praktiken der Annäherung), cur. Aneta Rostkowska, Temporary Gallery Cologne, 2019
︎ Goodbye Cruel World, It’s Over, cur. Janine Blöß, Weltkunstzimmer Düsseldorf, 2019

︎Minding Animals Germany Symposion, 21–22 September 2019, University of Arts Berlin, Germany
︎The First International Queer Death Studies Conference: Death Matters, Queer(ing) Mourning, Attuning to Transitionings, 4–5 November 2019, Karlstads Universitet, Sweden
︎Thinking Species — Austro-Canadian Animal and Media Ethics Conference, 6 December 2019, University of Innsbruck, Austria

Special thanks to the ceramics studio of the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Sandra Gigerl, who took great part in making this project possible; Yue Wang, who in parts photographed the documentation and was open for and interested in (doing) this project; Thomas Hawranke, PhD, Nieves de la Fuente Gutiérrez and Profs Hörner/Antlfinger of the department of Media Art / Installation “Transmedialer Raum” at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, who supervised this project; Axel Autschbach of the KHM wood and metal workshop, Heiko Diekmeier and Claudia Trekel of the KHM photography lab, as well as to Anne Hölck, curator of MEINBLAU Projektraum, Berlin and initiator of the exhibition series we , animals, where this work was first shown.

Butler, Judith. 2006. Precarious life. The powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso. XV.
Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso.
Fuchs, Thomas. 2018. “Presence in Absence. The Ambiguous Phenomenology of Grief.” Phenom Cogn Sci 17 (1): 43–63.
Chaffers, William. 1876. Marks and monograms on pottery & porcelain of the renaissance and modern periods. Bickers & son. 885f.
Heubel, Fabian. 2016. Chinesische Gegenwartsphilosophie Zur Einführung. Zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.
Imaizumi, Kazuhiko. 2015. “Forensic Investigation of Burnt Human Remains.” RRFMS, 67.
Snoeck, C., and R. J. Schulting. 2013. “Fire and Bone: An Experimental Study of Cremation.” Accessed December 04, 2019.
Attig, Thomas. 1996. “How We Grieve: Relearning the World.” New York: Oxford University Press.
van Dooren, Thom, and Deborah Rose. 2013. “Keeping Faith with Death: Mourning and De-Extinction.” Accessed December 04, 2019.
van Dooren, Thom. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. Critical perspectives on animals. Theory, culture, science, and law. New York: Columbia University Press.
Watson, Burton. 2013. The Complete works of Zhuangzi. Translations from the Asian classics. New York: Columbia University Press. 31-32. (内篇, 人间世 Inner Chapters, book IV, part VI) 

Installation at Temporary Gallery (2019, top view)
1     Urn, Bone China (Small pieces of bones are visible, strong deformation)
2    Urn, Sanitary porcelain (None to little deformation during the burning process)
3    Bone (Cattle) with marks most likely cut with a bone knife
4    Various bones of sheep

Additional Material 
︎ Exhibition Booklet we , animals 8
︎ Exhibition Booklet Practices of Approximation

︎ Exhibition Catalogue Goodbye Cruel World, It’s Over (Forthcoming)

︎ Press Material, Temporary Gallery, Cologne
︎ Press Material, Meinblau Project Space, Berlin