City of Bones. Front

City of Bones

City of Bones. Front. Overview

City of Bones: Overview

City of Bones. Back. Dead Bird

City of Bones: Back. Dead Bird

City of Bones. Back. Skeleton Bird

City of Bones: Back. Skeleton Bird


City of Bones: What Price Beauty


Mary B. Stanley


In this frontal view, the figures are placed to invite speculation. What is the tall man looking at thru the opening in the wall? Why are the two other figures so slumped and demoralized? Who are they? Why are they naked? Are those two Sarcophagi? Whose bodies are in them? Powerful persons? Is the cross on them Christian?


The title points to a grim backstory to the foreground of what appears to be a gallery. The text that would accompany the installation once on site, will explain that this is a depiction of the Hermitage. The paintings displayed are well-known and are indeed all part of the Hermitage Collection. The birch tree -- on site trees might surround the piece -- invites viewers to wander behind the front tableau.


A second frontal detail suggests another way to reflect on the naked woman who now finds a place upon one of the coffins. Perhaps in death women of any rank are returned to the nakedness with which they were born. Czarina and serf alike are simply mortal beings, sharing the same ultimate fate.


The image on the next page, is what a viewer finds upon moving to the back of the sculpture: the price of beauty. Shrouded, anonymous bodies are stacked with stone and brick. The walls of the Hermitage are a cemetery to the workers who died on site, sickened, starving, and broken with cold.The ceramic bodies are glazed to make them almost luminous. Russian serfs and craftsmen were abused and forced into labor in life and when they died became mere resource to fill cracks in the wall. Their luminous presence in the sculpture transforms rough burlap, in which they were originally wrapped, into a smooth, lustrous surface, gently outlining their skeletal forms.


And yet, how has beauty, the human ability to render experience into artistic expression, helped constitute what it means to be human? The allusion to ancient Cave Art on the back of the wall makes it’s own case for Art.


The price of beauty is also suggested as the viewer moves directly behind the installation. A dead Grey Stork symbolizes the transformation of habitats and the ecological impact on native species when human power and will ignore the environmental price of human action. In 1703 Czar Peter saw the natural habitat around the North Baltic where he decided to build St. Petersburg as impediment to be conquered.


And yet, when standing directly behind the room in the ‘Hermitage’, a strange bird creature, mostly skeletal but gathering its wings, is hatching. Nature is resilient. Cities may crumble to ruin but new flora and fauna will emerge. Changed. Perhaps different than they might have been had human presence not transformed this cold, frozen swamp into a great world city.


And yet, life of some sort will go on. Czar Peter, like every autocrat able to use human beings and nature as objects of will and vision, cannot control beyond the grave. The fate of his city, the security of great works of art, indeed art itself might resist and subvert the will of autocrats. There is freedom within art to express a full range of human experience, the experience of Czar and serf alike. There is freedom within art to honor the beauty of the natural world, a first focus of human creativity.


I hope that a siting my work at scale will invite reflection on the value and role of art in human existence while acknowledging the impact of the built environment on human beings and the natural world. Human desire and action and will, justified in the name of art, has a fraught history. “City of Bones” uses St. Petersburg to engage that history.


Exhibited:  Charrette at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. 2018


Mary lives and works in Syracuse, NY and Paraty, Brazil.

City of Bones. Front. Woman Foreground

City of Bones: Woman Foreground

City of Bones. Back. Bone Wall

City of Bones: Back. Bone Wall

City of Bones. Back. Detail

City of Bones: Back. Detail