Copper coins, milk and honey are encased in a human-sized glass vitrine. Each side of Donald Rodney's sculpture shows the process of verdigris blooming across the coins in strata of glowing blue and green, fading in places to muddy brown or revealing flashes of copper as the materials react to each other over time. Bodily decay, death and lost dreams.

Land of Milk and Honey II

Land of Milk and Honey II 1997

Donald G. Rodney (1961–1998)

Birmingham Museums Trust

Land of Milk and Honey II is a memento mori. The Birmingham-born artist made the piece for a 1997 exhibition at the South London Gallery that he developed as a eulogy to his father who had died three years earlier. The work gained further tragic resonance following the artist's own untimely death the following year.

The curdling materials represent the artist's body suffering from sickle cell anaemia, a disease that disproportionately affects people of African and Caribbean family descent, where diseased red blood cells cause damage and decay throughout the body. The title of the piece refers to the hope Rodney's father and other families of their generation had when migrating to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s; but like the milk in the sculpture, his dreams soured when exposed to the realities of life as an immigrant in Britain. Through these dual metaphors, Land of Milk and Honey II functions as a conceptual portrait of the tragic and heroic lives of two generations.

Rodney's wide-ranging practice encompassed automata, computer programmes, photography, X-ray prints and skin sculptures. Sometimes beautiful and occasionally shocking, but always ambitious and eloquent, these works explore his experience of life in a diseased body and living in a society diseased by racism.

Land of Milk and Honey II was donated by the artist's estate and the Contemporary Art Society in 2014 and has quickly become a star of the collection. Eventually the work will lose all of the green colouring, as lower parts of the sculpture already have, but it is this temporality – knowing that it will continue to decay – that makes every moment with this compelling work a precious, bittersweet interaction.

Emalee Beddoes-Davis, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust

A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour