Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife

Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife, blackened cedar shingles, linen, ink, timber (cedar, Tasmanian oak), MDF, fixings, 2016, approx 300 x 460 x 100cm.

Studio photography and details by Sam Roberts

Installation photography by Jessica Clark

Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife

Essay by Joanna Kitto

Across time we have created elaborate narratives and rituals surrounding death as a way of demystifying our own mortality. A discomfort with the finality of death has led to a belief in some form of life-after-death or reincarnation. Julia Robinson’s most recent work, Structure for Navigating an Unknown Afterlife, explores the spectrum of this very human reckoning with our inevitable fate.

Taking her cue from religion, folklore and myth, the Adelaide-based artist’s sculptural installation proposes a possible funerary housing or monument, carrying with it a multiplicity of notions surrounding death and rebirth. In the artist’s studio, she shows me an illustration by William Blake, The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death. The etching depicts spirits descending through a maze of winding tunnels, before Hope illuminates a possible path to an eternal home.

Like Blake, Robinson suggests multiple paths from death towards the great beyond. Linen and ashen cedar-clad tunnels branch out from the body of her looming structure, similarly recalling the entangled shafts of Ancient Egyptian pyramids created to allow the soul to find safe passage to the afterlife (and to prevent thieves from disturbing their journey).

The balance between above and below is seen across various belief systems and mirrors the eternal cycles of nature. A tree rises upwards in life and returns to the Earth in death; decomposition, in turn, leads to renewal. Christian thinking suggests the soul ascends skyward, to the heavens. The Old Testament sees Abraham and Moses climb mountains to meet their God, who passes on laws and decrees to carry back down to the Hebrews. The Altaic shamans of Siberia followed line-drawn maps that led them towards the supreme heights of their Upper World without getting lost.

Structure for Navigating an Unknown Afterlife sits within a history of burial casings that have long been part of death ceremony. Bodies have rarely been left exposed. Instead, they are wrapped or encased before burial or cremation. The practical motives behind this custom have too been obscured: in the idea that covering the body protects it from evil spirits and facilitates safe passage towards the afterlife.

Robinson speculates funerary housing plays a dual role. She says that they are not only a resting place for the dead, but also a vessel of transition, conveying the soul towards the uncharted territory beyond. Perched atop tall haunches, recalling the goat and deer familiar in her practice, Robinson instils the inanimate structure with anthropomorphic traits. She evokes a figure ubiquitous across theologies surrounding death: the psychopomp. Guiders of souls from the realm of the living to that of the dead, psychopomp have been depicted as anthropomorphised entities; stag, raven, even the howling wind. The enduring cult following of the Grim Reaper and the jackal-headed Anubis demonstrates our deep fascination with death and dying that is echoed throughout Robinson’s work.

Towering over her audience at nearly three metres in height, this is Robinson’s most ambitiously scaled work to date. The title, assertively didactic in nature, positions it within a history of museum displays; exhumed relics and reconstructions viewed behind glass encasing.

Robinson’s interest in mortality arose from the debris of her strongly held religious beliefs, a collapse that saw her begin to build a new ideological framework around death. Structure for Navigating an Unknown Afterlife suggests an attempt ‘to trace the untraceable, to chart a path between worlds, the exact dimensions of which remain unknown’[1].

Robinson draws on a myriad of influences to create a vernacular that is truly her own. Rather than commenting directly on superstition or faith, she harnesses their narrative power to draw our attention to contemporary societal responses to profoundly human concerns: life, death and fear. Structure for Navigating an Unknown Afterlife presents a possible model for moving on from death. And like the rituals from which it takes its cue, moving on is not reserved for the souls of the dead.

[1] communication with the artist, September 2016