Sic Transit Gloria Mundi - thus passes the glory of the world
(Oxford English Dictionary),
so passes away worldly renown,
(Mirriam Webster) or,
thus goes the glory of the world,
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, is the title of Mark Combs’ most recent solo show, his Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibition, in the Jot Travis Gallery, at the University of Nevada, Reno.
This is a show to visit alone, it is contemplative, serious and silent, requiring the viewer to leave their everyday brain chatter locked in another compartment of the cerebrum. It is not really necessary to prepare, as those thoughts and jangle naturally evaporate as you enter the gallery space. The walls of the rooms are dark, under lit, with a coolness of catacombs. In precise military rows, pale planks of wood appear to be floating inches off the floor, still wafting a faint smell of fresh cut pine wood, each solemnly bearing a single human bone made of shiny, silvery, hammered steel, with a connecting bone made of chalk colored, hand felted wool. We are looking at femurs, humeri, a jaw bone, radiuses, scapulas and ulnas. One wall contains a single file of planks and bones, they march off into the distance, when you get down low to see down the column. The rows in some spaces are 3 deep to the wall and the impression is of an infinity of bones on their coffin shaped planks levitating just above floor level.
In the second room, total darkness, where two rectangular projections loom on the left hand wall, they are i-phone interfaces, each with a clock and dates of the projected last day of their human’s life. One of the humans is Mark Combs himself, the other is a new born baby boy. They count down and tick each second off the life span of their humans. There is an auditory ticking, second by second, the only sound in any of the spaces. The effect is disturbing and gives either a sense of gloomy destiny or perhaps a sense of urgency, a feeling that all has not yet been accomplished.
Step through to another dark room where a line of polished cherry wooden chairs are illuminated in a row all looking at dark wooden boxes attached to the facing wall, a few feet away. Each simple wooden coffin shaped box contains a tall glass cylinder, and inside each cylinder is a single metal human bone, lit from invisible light sources above.
There has, (as you would expect), been an incredible amount of soul searching, thought, research, planning and utterly obsessive, grueling, physical work that has gone into the production of such an experiential show. Each bone has been welded, pummeled and bashed into shape with a hammer from scrap steel. Combs uses discarded metal to make his everlasting bones, each of which will oxidize eventually to a blood red oxide color, hinting at yet another iteration of corporeal change, humanity and loss. These bones will continue physically transitioning, adding a further temporal element to the components of the exhibition.
On first appearances, it seems a simple idea, (always the best way to start), denoting death and the transience of human life, but on deeper contemplation, reveals itself to be a layered complicated, well thought out series of mortality paths. Each has been deftly and painfully explored by the artist, to be presented for the viewer to fall into, or follow and examine on their own terms. Influenced by some of the work of South American sculptor, Doris Salcedo, Mark Combs has focused on his own jarring and nightmarish past horrors eventuating during and after his 22 years of military medical service, to create his work. Salcedo witnessed terrible violence in Columbia in the 1980’s and immediately began to make work referencing the vanishing of loved ones, who have disappeared from their families without trace. Salcedo’s box and furniture structures talk about human care and repair, using stitching, binding and material insertion in space, common unexamined spaces such as the enclosed undersides of chairs. Her works consider absence and sorrow, in quiet ways that return to haunt the viewer. It is with this influential artist in mind, that Mark follows his own process tracing trauma and remembrance.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi is a title with a meaning that is not immediately apparent to the lay person, but in this instance it is deliberately chosen, it both obscures and slowly reveals its meaning relating to this exhibition and Combs’ research. Latin is still used in medical fields, some academic areas, legal fields and in the church. The title further adds a ponderous weight to the idea of mortality, temporality, death and the forgotten.
The repetition of geometric, measured shapes, precisely laid out on the floor bring the viewer a sense of the scale of calamity they are witnessing, the number of lost lives, during recent wars. It is a boneyard, a graveyard, an orderly mathematical system. Combs has organized, and planned meticulously, incorporating symbolic numeric details into every aspect of the exhibition. He explains, he has configured the i-phone mortality clocks from an app called “Last Day,” which uses statistics based on averages taken from historical norms and from projected future norms. These dates are created from statistical data that takes into account the year you were born, the country you were born in and whether you are male or female. His last day is supposedly the 16th of April 2043 at the age of 78. The baby is an imaginary participant whose birthdate coincided with the opening of the exhibition, but sadly the projected life span is only 75 years.
Each room in Sic Transit Gloria Mundi has a variant, an emotive purpose; the first, full of constructed remains inspires a reverence, a quietness and tranquility found mainly in sacred burial places, the second brings feelings of mortality and the viewer’s own shortness of time, while the third is a spiritual place to reflect and consider those you have lost, or those who have been lost. It is a humbling space with viewing seats facing an array of 10 reliquaries, reminiscent of the precious housings caring for the bones of saints. It is a worshipful, praying room that Combs has constructed within a darkened gallery.
This exhibition is not just about military, or even American loss, but of global loss. The access point is universal. There is nothing identifying the nationality, race or gender of the bones. Bare fleshless human bones are just that, unidentified human bones.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi is a resonating exhibition identifying deep and world-wide human experience relating to time, inevitability, absence and factors that unite everyone on this planet. Death cannot be evaded. The layers of meaning of this exhibition become more loaded, and archeologically intense when we investigate the background of the artist. Combs was a medic in the military, participating in 22 years of duty, in 3 war zones, including Desert Storm in Iraq. He witnessed and worked with medical units, dealing with triage, death and wounded soldiers returning from the fight zones, in terrible states of human physical and mental suffering. This trauma was not the soldiers’ alone. Combs suffers from PTSD from the horror and pain he was surrounded by, not only the manifestation of the fear and torment experienced by all there, but also his own major back injury and drastic resulting surgeries. Doctors removed and replaced discs from his spine, fused vertebrae and inserted surgical clamps and hardware, a result of chronic damage, caused probably from years of lifting heavy medical equipment and the incoming wounded during service.
Echoes of surgical equipment, replacement limbs and titanium rods used to strengthen bones can be gleaned from the planks and bones, which also simulate piano keys on a never ending grande piano. The mathematical layout seems to create a rhythm to the eye, forming a type of music, or a heart-beat, as row upon row of the bones come into view in the darkness. This exhibition is a densely populated situation, evidence of physical endurance, not only of those who have become part of a memento mori, but of Combs himself who has spent several years smithy-ing solid bones that will not break, and their felted woolen counterparts. How to recover from so much loss, seems to be an obsessively persistent hammering at replacement parts for all those who he saw suffering and dying. While the hammer and the steel are cold and strong, perhaps shooting out sparks here and there as if for the first human fires, the felted components are from living, breathing sheep, hand crafted to simulate flexible, responsive bones, with a human touch very much evident. The physical opposition of the materials and production, draws further attention to the attributes of each material and its capacity to last or warm us. The choice of scrap steel rather than unused fresh steel is another analogy to be explored. Each piece has already had a full and useful life, is finally thrown to a scrap yard, where Combs discovers it, lifts it out, imagines himself sculpting a human bone and repurposes the unlikely looking piece of metal to tell another life story.
The experience of dispensability, or transience of human life, and the following years of excruciating rehabilitation for those that survive war; living with memories of unspeakable actions, accidents, or those who just painfully age seeing others die around them, all mark time on a brutally uncompromising psychological and physical clock. Combs’ exhibition contains facets of all of this inevitability and the human condition. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi becomes a darkly contemplative space for us to enter, assimilate, and turn around in our minds, bringing an understanding of how war, or in an expanded sense, how loss affects us over time, for all of our time.
Photography and Exhibition review by Frances Melhop
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi runs from 18th-25th April, with an artist lecture in JTB lecture theater 100 on 18th April 5 pm and the reception opening from 6-8 the same day.
Student Galleries South, Jot Travis Building.
University of Nevada, Reno.
1164 North Virginia St, Reno, Nevada, 89503