Hospital Hymn is a site-specific installation and performance that conjures the National Portrait Gallery’s history as a temporary hospital for soldiers during the American Civil War, where Walt Whitman worked as a nurse. Inspired by Whitman’s notebooks from the period, the piece memorializes the war’s quarter million unknown dead. Whitman suggests that their bodies became the compost of the nation—their spirits imbued in every stalk of wheat, blade of grass and flower that sprung from the dark fields of battle.
I will enact a ritual releasing thousands of handmade felt flowers, drawing on the language of Victorian mourning handcrafts to suggest the enormity of loss. Accompanied by fiddle and concertina, I will sing 19th-century hymns that Whitman recalled hearing nurses sing to dying soldiers.
Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers is a companion piece to the exhibition Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872. The piece was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of its Identify performance art series.
Thank you to Byer of Maine for in-kind support.