Yuko Shiraishi
August 2013
Conceived of sky, born of dusk.
Sky conceived you and Orion,
Dusk gave birth to you and Orion.
Who lives lives by the gods' command,
You shall live!
You shall rise with Orion in the eastern sky,
You shall set with Orion in the western sky,
The Pyramid text of Pepi I Meryre (reign 23322283 BC)
Utterance 442: Sarcophagus Chamber, West Wall
My first encounter with death was when my family dog died.
I was five years old. I could see his pink skin below the white fur soaked with my tears. I could feel his warmth as I pressed my face into his body.
The day after he died we dug a hole in the garden and buried him. Before burying him I wanted to give him one last hug. He was so heavy that my uncle had to help me lift him up. His body was already stiff and I could see his blackish pink tongue between his fangs. His body seemed somehow deflated. The earth we piled over him was teeming with insects. As his body disappeared into the ground, I began to wonder what would happen to him.
His absence and motionlessness seemed to expand and fill the whole house, overwhelming me with a terrible sadness. When that night I asked my grandmother and uncle what would happen to him, they took me out into the garden and told me that he would turn to earth and then become a star. They pointed upwards to the night sky. Back then there was relatively little pollution in Tokyo and not that many lights, so the sky was bright with stars. I vividly remember how I stared up wondering which of the stars my dog had turned into.
Ever since then I have always had at the back of my mind the idea that death and stars are somehow related.
Over the years death has impinged on my life in many different ways. My grandmother, who showed me the stars that night, is no longer alive.
My childhood memories were stirred two years ago when I saw the Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum. This was when I started thinking about the Netherworld project.
The first civilisations to develop script were China and Egypt. The invention of writing both revolutionised the course of history and also enslaved humanity to the desire to leave its mark for posterity. In Egypt, the resulting obsession with immortality led to the cult of the mummy.
The hieroglyphics that are also such a key characteristic of Egyptian culture were used to decorate the walls of tombs in the place of rich burial furnishings. The hieroglyphs themselves and the words and sentences composed from them operated as a form of magic. The deceased were believed to be protected from decay by the permanence of the hieroglyphic script and thus to be safe for ever.
My Netherworld is not, however, centred on script but on the structure of the tomb, which I have modelled after that of Tutankhamen. The reason for choosing Tutankhamen’s tomb is because it has survived more intact than any other. The tomb surrounded the deceased with many layers: four shrines, one sarcophagus, three coffins and the famous gold mask on the mummy of the dead Pharaoh. These layers were like a cocoon protecting the mummified body. They acted as physical barriers to prevent intrusion by bandits at the same time as echoing in their multi–layered configuration the repetitiveness of the spells written in hieroglyphics on the walls.
In Ancient Egypt, dusk marks the beginning of the journey to the afterlife, when the Ka and Ba that leave a person’s body at the moment of death reunite, allowing the deceased to join the stars in the sky. The Ka is the vital essence which comes into existence when a person is born. Because it was believed that the Ka needed sustenance in the afterlife, the Egyptians made offerings of food and water to the deceased. Ba was that which made a person individual and corresponds to our notion of personality.
Mummification aimed to keep the body biologically unchanged in order that it could be reunified with the soul in the next life. Extreme dryness and coldness also helped prevent decomposition of the body.
The process of programmed cell death, apoptosis, is a key feature of biological life. It underlies the formation of fingers and toes, for example, and functions in such a way that the dying cells break down into fragments that the body can remove without damage occurring to surrounding cells. In an adult between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day. In a growing child the number is between 20 and 30 billion.
Apoptosis is not purely benign in its action, however, and has been implicated in a wide variety of diseases. Too much apoptosis can lead to the body atrophying. We now know scientifically what the Ancient Egyptians believed to be true, namely that life implies death and death implies life, that man is born programmed to die.
This cycle of birth and death is also seen in the realm of the stars to which the Egyptians believed the Pharaohs migrated after death. When the universe began there was only hydrogen. As the universe moved into its first stage, this hydrogen fuelled the process by which nitrogen, carbon, silicon and iron came into being.
These elements, which are the building blocks of human life, were all created within stars, which then exploded and dispersed them in the second and third stages of the universe. The cyclicality of the life of stars and that of humankind are linked in a way understood by the Egyptians with extraordinary prescience. Birth is the beginning of death, and death is the beginning of life.