People who hoard animal bones can usually be divided into two categories. You're either the archetypal crazy cat lady, saving that chicken carcass as a "little treat for Mitzy" or the (probs equally unhinged) Satanist who just needs two more good-sized ribs to complete their pentagram.
So yeah, not what most of us would consider a "normal" pastime.
But our aversion to the bits of animal leftover from dinner may well be unfounded. Bags of unidentified butcher's bones make great broth and chef Fergus Henderson built his reputation on championing previously shunned bone marrow.
For London-based art duo Emma Witter and Emily Bridge, animal bones are also an artistic material. Working as Beast & Burden, the pair uses bird, pig, and cattle bones to create eerily beautiful, skeleton-like sculptures. Their latest project Permeance sees the bone sculptures photographed in a series of alien landscapes surrounded by blue eggs and severed chicken heads. Weird—but also kind of beautiful.
We spoke to Witter to find out more about the sculptures and whether we should be saving the remnants of our KFC Bargain Buckets.
MUNCHIES: Hi Emma, how did you start creating sculptures out of animal bones? Emma Witter: The project was a mix between a couple of other experiments. We'd done a series of sculptures called "egg vessels" and were interested in extravagant ways of serving food. We started thinking about what would be the most over-the-top way to serve something very small and simple like an egg, and started using bones from chicken, guinea fowl, and other birds.
We reworked the material to make the sculptures and also thought about carcasses as being a protective casing—even furniture that stores things can be called a "carcass." Using bones from the same animals seemed to be quite sweet and dark at the same time.
Why did you decide to use bones in particular? We're interested in the material. It's strong and lightweight and quite overlooked, even though you see so much of it. I'm really quite carnivorous and you see so many bones being thrown away. I really like the organic, soft symmetrical shapes and it's so available as a bi-product.
Also if you're to look at our sculptures, they're not so much about death. I want to lose the macabre associations we have with bone and just accept the material for what it is.
Some people are very squeamish about touching animal bones and even refuse to eat chicken off the bone. Was this something you wanted to challenge? Definitely. Westerners especially, we're so detached from what we're eating. It's a very Caucasian, middle class thing to have meat that's just plain white but actually, to eat the organs and to have meat that's off the bone is really healthy for you. We are really missing out on our food by being squeamish so the sculptures are trying to embrace it and be open about food.
I found it interesting that there was some research done in the '70s to do with which foods we naturally choose. There were 20 babies and 50 types of whole foods, like different fruits and vegetables and cuts of meat. All of the babies instinctively went for bone marrow because it's the best thing you could possibly eat. Babies kind of know that instinctively before they develop that kind of disgust reflex with food.
Interesting! Maybe not raw liver though. Where do you get the bones from? Is it all the leftovers from last night's chicken dinner? It's a mixture. We do generally really love our food so a lot of it is just saved. I cook and eat a hell of a lot of chicken and if we'd had dinner with friends, we'd start to collect bones. It's got to the point now, a couple of years down the line, and everyone naturally saves them so we don't even have a conversation. All of my friends naturally put their bones to the side of the plate and it's not a big deal knowing that I want to take it! I'm kind of past looking like a freak in restaurants and saying, "They're for my dog." I don't even care!
Do you ever feel weird handling all these animal bones? When you're doing something so repetitively, you lose that sense of disgust and I'm quite interested in that as another topic, anyway.
It's quite a long process to get the bones prepared. You have to boil them, then you've got to scrub them all clean and rinse them, bleach them all, and arrange them into size order. It's quite a long process to get them to the point where you're ready to use them but I find it quite therapeutic as well. I kind of like the repetition.
It's interesting that the sculptures seem to take the form of different animals' skeletons when they're constructed. I like it that you're using a natural material and that shapes the form of the sculpture altogether. You could never get it perfect. If you were using something that was like a cookie cutter-shape—like cubes—you could plan what it was going to look like. With the bones, they're never perfect and they're never all the same—you can start making it with something in mind and they themselves will naturally start to shape. I like that you can't predict it and they do naturally start to form organic shapes and look like they could have been grown.
How did Permeance come about? We had this series of sculptures and it got pulled into some photos we shot with Carl Warner who is this amazing food landscape photographer. Me and Emily do experiments and play around with materials and we were thrilled to discover century eggs.
People make them in Asia. They leave duck eggs in salt for a year or two and it gradually permeates through the shell and completely changes the structure of the egg. The egg white goes into a clear jelly and it's blue and green and they look absolutely alien. I remember cracking one open and thinking it was so strange—it was really solid and you could see strawberry veins running through it that looked like lightening bolts. We were both really shocked and I kind of wanted to capture that feeling in a photographic story.
The sculptures do look very alien when you see them in the photo series. That's why we had them in mind to pull together in this series. We started to imagine this story of aliens infiltrating chicken coops to lay their eggs in there and murdering the chickens to build these protective nests for their own eggs out of the skeletons. It was a bit dark! We wanted it to look kind of naff and '70s sci-fi. We tried to put that through with the colours and had a tiny smoke machine to give it that funny edge.
What do you want people to take away from your sculptures? Is it a comment on food waste? How disconnected we are from out meat? It's not political and I don't want to shove an opinion down someone's throat, it's more that I'm interested in trying to look at food from different angles. It's such a key thing for social interaction and I'd like to try and open people's eyes.
With the food waste, it's definitely a good thing but it's not the main reason we used bones. It's kind of a bi-product side of it but we want to lose the macabre associations that bone has and appreciate its form. It's not such a dark and horrible thing—it can be really pretty and quite lightweight, too.
So bones can be beautiful. Thanks for talking with us, Emma.