October 17, 2015
with Craig Woodward on fiddle and concertina
Hospital Hymn was a site-specific installation and performance that conjured 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 memorialized 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 enacted a ritual releasing thousands of handmade felt flowers, referencing Whitman's compost imagery and drawing on the language of Victorian mourning handcrafts to suggest the enormity of loss. Accompanied by Craig Woodward on fiddle and concertina, I sang 19th-century hymns that Whitman recalled hearing nurses sing to dying soldiers.
Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers was a companion piece to the exhibition Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872. It was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of its Identify: Performance Art as Portraiture series.
Thank you to Byer of Maine for in-kind support.
The names I embroidered on the sheets were taken from Whitman's notebooks. Most of these soldiers died in his care.
Photos by Ryan Collerd
Video by Greenhouse Media