I never thought I would run out of an exhibition opening. As the artist shared her anxiety about turning thirty, a fear of inadequacy and different mindsets to deal with impending death, the validating laughter from the audience caused my chest to tighten. I could feel the displeasure on my face and taste the salty tear that stained my cheek. The space, a partitioned off corner in the back of the gallery, seemed to get smaller as she went on. To me it wasn’t art, but a haunting reminder of a loved one’s suicide letter. I know many will discredit my assertion as a trigger of emotional baggage, tainting my interpretation of the performance. This got me to thinking: how do we (artists and curators) effectively engage with the topic of death? (Better yet, how do we measure effectiveness? Effective to who or for whom?)
For over a month I have drafted and redrafted this post. I didn’t want to waste any more energy on that night. I wanted to investigate different curatorial and artistic approaches to death that I appreciated. My intention was to look at their mechanics – intent, audience, form, etc – and work out what made them effective for me. As I started to explore the list of possible works to include, I realised that what seemed like a strategic way of dealing with my discomfort was instead opening a can of worms I couldn’t easily close. What seemed cathartic on one hand was further crippling on the other.
Death in art | Death in Museum Practices | Death in memorial practices. No matter how I looked at it, the topic was too broad to close out in one blog post. The academic part of me cringed (a part of me that will forever taint my writing style).
I repeatedly found myself flicking through Candy Chang’s ‘Before I Die’. I bought this book after meeting Candy following a talk at my university. It archives some of the responses to her interactive public installation that propositions citizens to consider what they want to do before they die. As individuals use chalk to write their hopes for the future, a diverse list that reflects the thoughts and values of the community emerges.
Before I Die reflects the type of experiences I hope to produce throughout my professional practice – inclusive, organic, engaging, reflective, optimistic, self-representational, considered, interactive… I could go on, but I think you get the point.
In the introductory text, Chang tells readers about Joan, her mother-figure for fifteen years who had died unexpectedly one August day. She came to think about death a lot and wanted to find a way to incorporate this into her experiments with public space.
After being granted access to the exterior of a rundown house in her neighbourhood as the site for the installation and ‘permission of appropriateness’ from local authorities, Chang produced what was to be the first instalment of Before I Die in 2011 in her hometown of New Orleans. An accessible item, a piece of chalk, became the tool through which neighbours started to vulnerably express the hopes and dreams for the future. Thousands of responses were received over several months on an otherwise neglected space. People were out in the community meeting one another and talking about life and death in sincere and honest ways.
‘Before I die I want to – finish school; open a school; evaporate into light; tell my mother I love her; write a book; understand; straddle the international date line; have a student come back and tell me it mattered.’
By 2013, over 200 walls had been created around the world in over ten languages using the toolkit Chang provided via her website free of charge. Jerusalem, Dublin, Auckland, Melbourne, Brooklyn, Chicago, Johannesburg, Dubai, Chiang Mai, Santiago, Rome and many, many more. In return she only asked that documentation be sent to her for archiving.
Before I Die is a reminder of the necessity for neighbourly relations, the pivotal role public spaces play in facilitating daily life, the idea that making a large impact doesn’t require a large budget and that death isn’t only something to talk or worry about when we are old.
Before I Die wasn’t just about any one person, but encouraged everyone to reflect on a universal fact of life in a very public way. It was about a rundown house wanting to be a home again. It was about public space and how citizens navigate it and behave within it. The work looked at public space as a canvas to represent the ideas of its citizens in a non-discriminate way, rather than privileging the views of those with the capital and thus power to influence.
Before I Die took what might seem like a daunting topic and focused on the positive aspect – the hopes for what making a difference looks like, the beliefs of what brings happiness and the connections that, thanks to technology, aren’t what they used to be.
* * * * *
Every now and then I take pause for my loved one who penned her apology on a post-it note and grappled with her web of dark thoughts as the ambulance rushed her to hospital. I remember the way my sunflower skirt swished as I ran down the stairs of the library, to the bus stop, to the station platform only for my tears to take over on the train as I waited to wrap my hand around hers. I cannot shake the tightness of my chest a year and a half later as I stood alone in a crowd, at a gallery that used to be my safe place. I ran as I did that spring morning, weaving through the loitering crowds towards the doors that couldn’t open fast enough. I had almost made it home when my ipod’s shuffle function opened the flood gates.
What others may see as a moment of weakness, was truly a moment of strength and vulnerability for both of us. Suicide is not always the reckless act society stigmatises it to be. Art can play an important role in breaking down this stigma and that that surrounds related issues, such as death and mental health, but on this occaision the mark was missed. My “emotional baggage” may have infringed on my ability to objectively engage with a performance piece that evening. However it may even be the trigger that enables me to take artists to task on their social responsibility to produce better considered, reflective, selfless works like Candy Chang.
A friend once told me that sometimes the conversations we have after viewing an art work or experiencing an art event are more interesting than the artwork/event itself. This applies to the work that has intentionally gone unnamed in this post.
Some artworks belong in a gallery, others have a greater aura in public spaces. But some performances are better saved for a visit to a psychologist.
I highly recommend you watch Candy Chang’s Tedx Talk or look at her website with a range of projects that reconsider how we engage with space. If you or a loved one is struggling with any form of mental health, please seek help through the numerous servics and organisations.
NB: All images sourced from Candy Chang’s website.