I’m handed a torch at the front desk and enter the ‘Dying Art’ Exhibition. The darkness is punctuated by tea-light candles, illuminating shrines, highlighting and accentuating urns and shrouds, and creating silhouettes of the dozen or so eco-coffin lids standing upright at intervals throughout the room. My eyes adjust to the light as I flick on the torch and move through the space, reading inscriptions, viewing lids decorated with interpretations of end-of-life, images of nature, the human form, abstract and the obscure, all personal to the artists commissioned. I move slowly in the extraordinary atmosphere, conscious of my breathing, aware, overcome by something I now struggle to put a name to; reverence, grace? Silently, I say a prayer. It is at once an uplifting and sobering experience, an intricate and intimate web that I am willingly drawn into, and absorbed by, like a moth to a flame. Tears come as I gaze down upon the infant's coffin, my Carla, and almost immediately I become one with an overwhelming sense of beauty, fragility and mystery. I feel I've died and gone to the holy land. At no time do I recall ever feeling so moved by an exhibition.
At auction later in the evening I successfully bid for the coffin lid depicting the unicycling juggler, seen above. It landed like a long lost relative in the palm of my hand the moment I set eyes on it. It is the work of artist, Kellie O’Dempsey. There’s something vaudevillian that speaks to my sense that once upon a time I moved across Northern Africa with the gypsy caravans, performing for my supper, and also reminds me of my stilt-walking days. The juggler's skill is to work with rhythm, timing and focus to keep all her balls in the air; this I see as symbolic of keeping in check our emotional, social, practical, intellectual and spiritual life, maintaining a balance, an equilibrium, and a homoeostatis for the everyday. The subject of the artwork is looking down, inward, trusting her intuition, confidently navigating her path on the wheel of life, getting on with what she does best. I love this piece not for its lofty, far-reaching and grand style but for its wonderful distinction between the earnest and the whimsical.
Death as a subject is often way too inconvenient a truth for the masses, but how I see it is you can’t have life without death. It's everywhere. Why not mention its name, talk about it? I feel proud and grateful I'm involved in a social change movement that honours life by fearlessly naming death and which acts courageously to demystify its place in our lives. I’ve installed the lid at home, just inside the front door, as a reminder of impermanence, that now is the new tomorrow.
How do you view death?