This Art Made from Human Bones Will Make You Rethink Your Existence

New Zealand artist Bruce Mahalski celebrates life while warning of mankind's looming extinction.

by Craig Hilton and Zoe Madden-Smith
Jun 20 2018, 7:30pm

Sacred (2014). All images courtesy of Bruce Mahalski.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE New Zealand.

The sight of bones may remind us of death, but Dunedin born artist Bruce Mahalski sees life instead. Over the past decade, Mahalski has experimented with what he likes to call "textural bone sculpture".

Inspired by museum exhibitions, particularly old Victorian-era displays, Mahalski arranges the remains of animals like rabbits, possums, and chickens to create striking pieces of art. But what sets Mahalski apart is how he also dares to work with human bones and skulls.

Te Hopu (Snapper)

Protecting the dignity of the dead is vital to Mahalski, and in his eyes this starts with treating every species as equal. By incorporating human skeletons alongside animals, he places humans back in their rightful place in nature. “We’re not the pinnacle of evolution. We’re just another pest pretending to be God,” says Mahalski.

Chicken and rabbits.

Mahalski was a collector long before he became an artist. As a child, he found himself filling up chocolate boxes with shells, bones, insects, and—his favorite of them all—crabs. He blames his parents for his addiction to collecting. His father, a medical specialist, and mother, a teacher of psychology, both had their own collections of precious biological ephemera.

The notion of a collector as an artist thrills Mahalski. Despite his artistic talent, he insists collecting is his real passion. He’s just lucky to have found a way of justifying and expressing it.

In this excerpt from Mahlaski's new book Seeds of Life, published by Rim Books, the artist talks to writer Craig Hilton about his process and our delicate existence.

Craig Hilton: Why do you mix up human bones with animal bones?
Bruce Mahalski: I do it to try and put us back into the natural order of things before it’s too late.

In my eyes, humanity is teetering on the brink of completely destroying our environment because we’re too busy being individuals and hoarding money to address the pressing problems of pollution and climate change. There’s a lot of magical thinking going on. Christians and Muslims are taught that nature was put here by God to serve our physical needs. Many of them also believe that the millennium is on its way, so it doesn’t matter if we screw the environment because the world is about to end in any case. On the other hand, many atheists seem to have made a new religion out of science and think that new inventions are going to pull our arses out of the fire. Someone will invent a new way to produce cheap ‘clean’ energy and we’ll all live happily ever after.

Some religious people revere human life above all others but I think this ‘species-ist’ attitude is at the root of a lot of our current problems. I don’t see any intrinsic difference between the bone of a human or a rat or a pig. I know I’m an animal. The challenge is to be a better one. I use my art to try and talk to the human herd. We’re stampeding towards the edge of the cliff of extinction. I’d rather we turned off before we started to jump.

Where do you think you’re going with your work?
I think I’m only just scratching the surface of what I can and want to do with bones and other organic matter. I want to make much bigger things and cover whole walls with textural bone surfaces. I’ve just started to set up a small private institution in Dunedin called ‘The Museum of Natural Mystery’ based around my collections and my artwork.

When you make decisions in your work, does it matter, or is it important to you, that different species are mixed?
It depends entirely on the work. In the location-specific pieces, all the bones come from one place and it’s not important what species they are. They’re like 3D diagrams of the animal life in a particular locality. Other pieces such as ‘Prion Wreck’ (2012) stick to just one species. In this case it was to memorialize a disastrous natural event which affected these birds. ‘Rabbit Skull Rack #1’ (2014) is more of a statement about how common these animals are. But many works mix up the bones of animals (and sometimes humans) to make bigger statements about our interconnectedness and our responsibility to try and safeguard the whole of environment while at the same time acknowledging and respecting animals which many people consider ugly and useless.

Mere de Rat (Rat Mother)

Do you think of the final work as a species fusion? A new species?
No. Definitely not. It’s more like a map of a particular place and time.

Especially the ones with skulls in the center. Are you giving them life? Perhaps a voice again?
I’m not giving them life but I am trying to give them a voice. My mission is to expand the parameters of what most people see as beauty to give them a richer appreciation of other life forms and a desire to protect them. Our modern concept of beauty is both biologically and culturally determined. We tend to judge other animals by the extent to which they conform to our innate preferences as mammals. For instance, most people find fur more attractive than scales. We’re biased. We can’t go on writing off large chunks of the biota (insects and fish are classic examples) simply because we don’t find them physically attractive.

What motivates you to do that?
My unrealistic and overweening social conscience, and huge servings of existential guilt at being a (white male) human being.

You can check out more of Bruce’s work here.

Oves Dei - Sheep Goddess
Albatross

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