8. GRAVEN IMAGES: “THE HART ISLAND PROJECT”

Publication Date30 Dec 2004
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1016/S1059-4337(04)34008-1
Pages179-200
AuthorRebecca Scott Bray
8. GRAVEN IMAGES: “THE HART
ISLAND PROJECT”
Rebecca Scott Bray
When historical visibility has faded, when the present tense of testimony loses its power to
arrest, then the displacements of memory and the indirections of art offer us the image of our
psychic survival. To live in the unhomely world, to find its ambivalencies and ambiguities
enacted in the house of fiction, or its sundering and splitting performed in the work of art, is
also to affirm a profound desire for social solidarity: ‘I am looking for the join...I want to
join...I want to join’ (Bhabha, 1994, p. 18).
This chapter follows points and practices of cultural and legal suture. My aim is
to trace a thematic excursion into the unremarked or culturally unseen spaces that
repeatedly inter dead bodies. This task is rewarded by aesthetic practice excavating
a site of repression, a site that confesses our flight from, but necessary management
of,dead bodies within cultural spaces.Toachieve this, myattention turns to a State-
owned graveyard on Hart Island, located in Long Island Sound, New York. Hart
Island is a graveyard for New York’s poor, unclaimed or unknown dead – what is
commonly known as a “potter’s field.1It is a place where law and art intersect
in remarkable absence of any significant cultural claim on the island, and it is
a landscape where the failings of forensic conclusion are now mingling with an
aesthetic revelation.
This chapter introduces the work of New York artist Melinda Hunt, whose
ongoing work, entitled the Hart Island Project, signals a restless return to images
of the island, highlighting the spur for meaning and the call for evidence that we
make as viewers of photographic images. In this way,through her re-telling of the
island’s activity, the dead are resurfacing in a tense excursion between visibility
and invisibility.The exercise of imaging the island highlights looking as a practice
An Aesthetics of Law and Culture: Texts,Images, Screens
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society,Volume 34, 179–200
Copyright © 2004 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(04)34008-1
179
180 REBECCA SCOTT BRAY
directed beyond the spaces of the text given to be seen, into the extendedspaces of
language and the image; that is, into spaces of the imagination. The seat and scene
oflonging, memory and distillation, the imaginationfosters fantastical perspective,
trading in oneiric sights and encounters with the invisible. 2Therefore, as an
essay that seeks to dialogue with the visual text, this chapter necessarily teems
with oneiric industry. Similarly, to cite and to imagine the island is to explore
the textual dimensions and therefore the discretionary, shifting boundaries, of
concepts such as “history,” “community” and “citizenship” as they are ratified
at the sites and bodies of others and, simultaneously, as they lie fallow in our
cultural archives.3Toencounter these bodies and sites through aesthetic images is
also to enlist the power of cemetery landscapes to sign identity and structure public
space.4
Through delimiting the notion of “perspective” from a purely spatial location,
my text creeps out toward a critical approach to perspective as both informing
subjective distance and difference, thus readily assuming the properties and
assumptions of a gaze that moves through culture.5Living in such flux we move
proximate always to the figures and voices of others. Correspondingly,as citations
of balance between burial and remembrance, the Hart Island pictures breathe
with imaginative weight and ghost us with their call for citizenship and historical
significance, one that implores we write history as a “present” concern. Ultimately,
functioningas socio-political panoramas, they uncover historiographies ofour own
bodies, cities and everyday lives.
***
Hart Island is an other space. It is the ninth potter’s field in New York. Its
location on the outskirts of the city echoes the State history of public burials
that situate graveyards on the fringe and removed to the edges of New York.
Each successive potter’s field established ground for public burialbeyond the city
limits. Previous potter’s fields were located on Ward’s Island, Randall’s Island
and at a number of sites in Manhattan. Despite Hart Island’s status as a State-
owned cemetery, public access is difficultsince the New York City Department of
Correction administers the island and the burials, and the graveyard is inaccessible
to the public, unless by special request. It is therefore further at a remove due
to this administration, and is sealed from public access and thoroughfare by its
formal, institutional status. Since the State acquired the island in 1869, it has
accommodated programs of penal reform in addition to welfare and healthcare
rehabilitation, which variously established prison workhouses, a tubercularium,
an insane asylum and defence barracks.6Currently, law convenes punitively, and
daily, to oversee burialsperformed by prisoners from Riker’s Island. Prisoners, as
other bodies similarly at a remove from the city, dig the graves and inter the dead.

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