A carpet of one million bones on the National Mall this weekend

June 7, 2013

Thousands of people are expected to converge on the National Mall between Third and Seventh streets to lay down a carpet of hand-crafted human bones beginning Saturday at 10 a.m. Called "One Million Bones," the massive art installation is the brainchild of Albuquerque-based artist Naomi Natale, who since 2010 has been soliciting the contribution of artisan-made bones as a way of calling attention to genocide and mass killing in Sudan, Congo, Burma and Somalia.

The sprawling outdoor art installation, which will include bones made of clay, plaster, wood, glass, metal, paper and other materials, will remain on view through Monday afternoon. Earlier, smaller-scale versions of the project had featured 50,000 bones. This weekend's event will be the largest display yet, and the culmination of the project, after which Natale hopes to find a permanent site to house the collection.

Technically, "One Million Bones" is an imprecise title. According to Natale, the installation will number exactly 1,018,260 bones, with tens of thousands made locally. Based on previous installations, the artist estimates that the bone-laying ceremony itself will run until 2 p.m. Events over the rest of the weekend will include a Sunday evening candlelight vigil, performances and speeches by such guests as actress Robin Wright, Rep. Tom Periello (D-Va.) and other experts on genocide and human rights. A full schedule is available here.

Although the project shares a conceptual similarity with the AIDS quilt, Natale says she's never seen the quilt. Rather, her inspiration, came from a determination to create a mass grave, something that would connect people to what would otherwise be a statistic, the very magnitude of which was paralyzing. The idea grew out of an earlier project in which Natale asked 555 artists to make cradles honoring the war orphans she had seen while working as a photographer in Africa. When confronted by the scope of "One Million Bones," Natale hopes that viewers will not only confront a powerful, if morbid, symbol of faraway suffering, but recognize the fragility of our own lives, and our connectedness to victims we only hear about on the news. "We belong to each other," she says.

More than a piece of sculpture, Natale also sees the art work as a kind of performance. If you'd like to help lay the bones, you too can participate. Although volunteers are being asked to show up Saturday at 9 a.m., wearing white, latecomers and those not wearing white won't be turned away. Saturday is expected to be rainy, so dress appropriately.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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Alex Baldinger · June 7, 2013