Unearthing hidden art

Cemeteries aren't the first place you think of when wondering where to view beautiful works. But for Dr Sally Gray, they are home to a huge range of unappreciated sculptures.

Since 2007 Gray has been photographing the urns that adorn many graves in cemeteries in the Illawarra, Sydney, London and various places around the world. At first, she wasn't sure what to do with them, knowing only that she was struck by their beauty.

Chosen for details such as floral decoration, colouration and whatever caught her eye as she wandered through places of rest, Gray estimates she took about 270 photographs of the funerary ornaments, which have now been turned into a digital projection.

"The whole exercise for me was incredibly visually pleasurable and stimulating. I literally fell in love with various ones of them and . . . even after I'd been photographing them for years, I still felt excited when I saw another one that was totally fabulous," she says.

"Even isolated cemeteries, like Gerringong for example, have the most incredibly beautiful urns, so it doesn't really matter where you go, there are these amazing acts of human inspiration really, and I just find that really wonderful.

"It's not the same as going to an art gallery, but it's extremely pleasurable to wander around and see these creative contributions."

The photographs have been distilled down to a focus few and shaped into a video by Gray and her collaborator Hermano Silva. Designed especially for the "chapel-like" room at Wollongong City Gallery, Gray hopes people will use the time spent watching to reflect on the universal experiences of life, death and memories.

"The idea is you would sit still for 15 minutes and let this visual and sound experience wash over you and by remaining still for the duration of the piece you would have the opportunity to connect with that aspect of our existence.

"It's not really about spirituality, but more about the ongoing presence of people who have been important in our lives though they have passed away."

Though the subject matter may seem morbid, Gray never focused on the mortality the urns represented. Rather, she finds herself at ease with loss, having lost both her parents and many friends, and sees the experience as one of learning rather than one of tragedy.

"I see loss as part of life and so while it's sad and everything, what I've found is when people who have been close to me have moved on, I've found I'm left with the part of them, that I'm able to learn from them even though they're not here," she says.

Gray didn't involve herself with the specific stories behind each urn as she says the project is not about one person's experience.

"It's more about all of us, more about the way we humans try to manage our existence and how we are attached and then we let go, and how we gain and we lose, and all those things to do with all of us."

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