Sky burial (Tibetan: Wylie: bya gtor, lit. ”bird-scattered”) is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially bird of prey. It is practiced in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai,Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, and in Mongolia proper. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the VajrayanaBuddhist traditions as charnel grounds. Comparable practices are part of Zoroastrian burial practices where deceased are exposed to the elements and birds of prey on stone structures called Dakhma. Few such places remain operational today due to religious marginalisation, urbanisation and the decimation of vulture populations.
The majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible (the source of the practice’s Tibetan name). In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to its increasing use by commoners.
Paul Thek, ‘Untitled’, 1966
“This untitled work is from a group of sculptures that Paul Thek termed Technological Reliquaries, or “meat pieces.” In Catholic tradition—which Thek drew on frequently—reliquaries are sculptural containers intended to contain relics of the saints, often parts of their bodies. Thek responded to that tradition by creating Plexiglas boxes filled with naturalistic beeswax replicas of hunks of meat and body parts. In Untitled (1966), a replica of a severed limb oozes a fatty, marrow-like substance from its hollow opening. Short “hair” follicles spring from its waxy “skin.” Longer lengths of hair-like threads extend through holes at the top and side of the yellow-tinted Plexiglas case—a cross between a vitrine and an incubator—that is set on a Formica and plated bronze base. Discussing the unnerving juxtaposition between the boxes and their contents, Thek remarked: “inside the glittery, swanky cases… Formica and glass and plastic—was something very unpleasant, very frightening, and looking absolutely real… the hottest subject known to man—the human body.” For Thek, this grotesque assemblage of organic and inorganic forms involved a response to the carnage of the Vietnam War, and an expression of fear that the scientific technology which fueled the war would suppress the human spirit.”
- Richard Flood, “Paul Thek: Real Misunderstanding,” Artforum20
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To celebrate this collaboration we’re approaching a selection of our favourite 15Folds contributors to date in an open call for submissions.
If you’re interested in submitting, please send us your piece on the theme of Extinction, complete with title and description, by 28th September.
We can’t wait to see what you come up with.
All the best,
The 15folds team