My action takes the form of a visual diary extracted from documentation I took throughout the week of my mother’s funeral ceremonies after her sudden death in 2019.
My mother has been an important influence and collaborator in my practice for over a decade and upon hearing the news of her passing I was convinced that I needed to hide behind my camera as a coping mechanism to process this immense grief by using rigorous documentation as a distraction.
This platform gives me a cathartic opportunity to finally revisit this haphazardly captured footage in order to evaluate whether a larger project exists within this material. Returning to Australia after her funeral, an overwhelming anxiety I had was that I was somehow a ‘cultural orphan’ without the primacy of this matrilineal connection fuelling my work. The legacy of this intimate relationship and collaboration is an important one to preserve as it unlocks a vital component of my broader practice, and this action, tentatively titled Tender Ruin, is a valuable tool of reflection for me.
Nathan Beard is an interdisciplinary artist who uses his Australian-Thai heritage to unpack the nuanced influences of cultural identity and authenticity. Beard’s practice deconstructs an understanding of his own “Thainess” through an idiosyncratic reworking of personal artefacts and archival material.
Recent exhibitions include the Churchie National Emerging Art Prize, Institute of Modern Art, 2020; Here&Now20: Perfectly Queer, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 2020; White Gilt 2.0, Firstdraft, 2020; A dense intimacy, Bus Projects, 2019; and WA Focus: Nathan Beard, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2017. In 2017 Beard participated in the 4A Beijing Studio Program, and in 2022 he will undertake an Australia Council Residency at ACME Studios, London.
Early on the morning of September 8, 2019 I was awoken with a call informing me of the sudden passing of my mother at home in Thailand. Within 24 hours I was boarding a plane to Nakhon Nayok to attend her funeral at Wat Tam Nak, which feels unbelievable in light of current circumstances.
My great grandfather helped to build this temple and it’s where several of my family’s stupas are located. Most recently I had attended a Buddha’s Day ceremony here with my mum in late 2018.
Initially my mother’s coffin was accompanied by a portrait used for her Thai ID. Thankfully my brother took the time to prepare a framed portrait I had taken of her only a few months prior after getting a perm, so that a warmer, more familiar image of her greeted visitors attending her funeral ceremonies.
My mother adored colour and excess. My aunty Prakhong spared no expense ensuring that her funeral would reflect this, and the beauty of these arrangements was breathtaking to behold, especially given the immediacy in which traditional funeral ceremonies begin to occur.
In the instant despair of my grief I knew I needed to make myself present for as much of her funeral ceremony as possible, so that I could process this loss through ritual and the presence of family. I also knew that I needed to use the distraction of my camera as a tool to absorb as much of this emotional distress as possible. The sweat of the coffin, the coiling smoke of burned incense- I had a voracious desire to record, often haphazardly, every detail I was able to extract in the moment to ensure an immediate archive existed as a legacy to this indescribable shift in my life.
This collection of images focuses on details of rituals performed at sunrise and sunset in the few days leading to my mother’s cremation.
Offerings are carefully prepared and gathered through an exhausting routine of errands. Her favourite foods are prepared for monks and guests by a tireless team of staff at the restaurant my cousin manages below her house. Familiar patterns and textures of her clothes are bundled together and brought to the temple.
Time, ever a vacuum, stretches unfathomably but also rushes by. After two nights it’s suddenly the day of cremation, and the decorations are slowly moved outside from the temple.
On the drive from Suvarnabhumi airport to Nakhon Nayok my cousin showed me photographs he had taken of my mother being prepared for her coffin. It was shocking to see her with gauze around her nose and mouth, the colour drained from her body. She was familiar and yet entirely foreign, presented immaculately in a pristine green dress she would have had tailored in town specifically for a Buddha’s Day celebration at Wat Tam Nak.
The immediate thing I noticed about these photos was that her nails were cleaned of polish. I asked if this was removed at the temple as part of her preparations and was told that she had removed it herself two nights ago. She had intended to freshly paint them before visiting the temple on the day she passed. I couldn’t bear the thought of her being cremated without finishing this ritual for her.
My mother adored shades of red for her nails. She often couldn’t decide between them and would often paint each nail a separate hue. When I was working on my exhibition White Gilt earlier in 2019, on one of the pieces I wanted to use a deep shade of red from Tom Ford called Bordeaux Lust that I had gifted to her one mother’s day but couldn’t find it. Searching through her makeup bag for a nail polish to take to the temple on the day of her cremation, we found it. She had carried it with her to Thailand and left it there.
Immediately before cremation my brother and I were granted permission to finish her nails. It was a final act of intimacy tied to a familiar ritual of hers that I was privy to countless nights growing up.
The morning of cremation I’m up before light. A heavy shroud of mist lifts above the forested hills in the distance of my mother’s home as day breaks.
While the pyre burns through the night, the temple slowly returns back to normal and the vibrant display of the past few days is reset.
The next morning we gather around the still-smoking ashes to pick for fragments of bone which are washed and prepared to be moved to my yai’s stupa. Memories of my yai’s funeral at Wat Tam Nak are among the most vivid childhood recollections I have of Thailand, and there is a faint sense of deja vu hovering over the rituals of my mother's funeral.
The interment of my mother’s remains in her family stupa is the final ritual to be performed at Wat Tam Nak. The stupa’s lid is a heavy concrete spire, which is precariously lifted for just long enough to place my mother’s remains next to my grandmother’s.
Almost immediately afterwards we headed to Nakhon Nayok to finalise the registration of her death and collect her death certificate. My mother died of sudden heart failure in the middle of the night, slipping away in my aunt’s arms while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. A monk at Wat Tam Nak says that for her to pass away suddenly without prolonged illness indicates that she had earned lots of good merit in this lifetime. We had spoken just three days earlier on her birthday, and she was in warm spirits.
I slept in her bed two days after she suddenly awoke from it for the last time. Laying in it after the final day of her funeral ceremonies, I’m brought to heaving, uncontrollable tears staring at the photos of her and our family that she had arranged in her cupboard door. It’s a slight detail that immediately conjures her in this domestic space, and it’s a precious one. This carefully arranged tableaux would have been the last thing she saw before going to sleep, and the first thing she laid eyes upon every morning. These phantom traces of my mother are embedded throughout so much of this home, and I’ve been longing desperately to return.