Searching for Hidden Treasures

Vanitas (or memento mori) is a timeless recurring theme in art and life — and one that I like to explore as well. Given my position as a marine biologist who “studies life,” I find it ironic that I am killing (or, scientifically put, preserving) more organisms than in most other professions.

I work at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, and we need large enough samples to make valid estimates of fish populations to control our exploitation of marine resources. The artworks above are from my Glorification of the Dead series, and my processes and the resulting images here are a way to respect and shine light on those life-forms that lost their lives for the benefit of human society — so that I can keep my sanity as I’m observing dead fish all day.

Unlike in Western culture, where the embalming process was developed to have an open coffin to actually view the deceased, at a funeral in Japan, the coffin is usually closed and there is a custom to install a portrait of the deceased at the altar. Those photographs were traditionally black-and-white, with the subjects wearing formal clothes, yet recently, portraits are being made by enlarging a selected photograph from one of the deceased’s memorable trips abroad, and they are in color. In the end, what is left from the funeral is the portrait, and those were traditionally installed in a cabinet-sized, Buddhist altar at home called a butsudan.

I’ve heard from some people that they connect my works to gyotaku. 

An old gyotaku print of a carp, circa 1839.

An old gyotaku print of a carp, circa 1839. Image courtesy of

Gyotaku originated in Japan, back in the mid-1800s, as a way to record fish caught by the fishermen.

Even today, those fish prints are important records of size before the populations were altered by large-scale industrial fishing, which started around the 1960s. Since most of the big ones are already overfished, it is almost impossible to gain the data of their maximum size. This data is important to determine the age and growth of the fish so that we can limit the catch.

Can’t help but think that, when I made my first piece in this series, perhaps I was subliminally conscious of all those things.

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