I first met Philippa Bayley back in January of this year when I received an email from her asking to meet with me. She was planning an exhibition – a response piece to the life and death of her mother who had passed away from Motor Neurone Disease the year before – and could she talk to me about it?
Now I get quite a few emails about Death Café and Not Being Morbid, but this one really jumped out at me. I arranged to meet Philippa for a coffee the following week. Our coffee turned into a three-hour meeting and by the end I knew I wanted to be involved and had met a very special person. Over the year I watched with awe as Philippa turned her vision into a reality. There were setbacks with rejections for funding, which meant the project had to be self-funded (and subsequently slightly less ambitious), but despite the knocks Philippa never gave up.
Her vision soon emerged into a concrete concept: When Death Comes, a month-long interactive art space that would initially feature artwork by her mother Sabine, as well as her own work that reflected her grief and meditations on death – others were also invited to submit work they had created into response to grief, death and dying. I even submitted a poem I wrote for my dad’s funeral. Throughout the month, visitors could submit their work and words as well; and as the space filled, the original work would be taken away.
Philippa also wanted a series of events to run alongside the exhibition – workshops, talks and films. I was asked to run a Death Café as part of the project, and I also decided it would be good to have a workshop for parents. By summer Philippa had found a venue, had started a website, and submissions of work started rolling in.
The exhibition opened at The Island Gallery on the 16th September, with a fascinating talk by Professor Havi Carel from Bristol University, entitled “should I fear my death”, which captivated and engaged a packed gallery. Both Philippa and myself were astounded by the turn out and hoped to see it as a sign of the popularity and necessity of the project. After the talk we engaged in lively discussion as Havi answered questions.
We were not wrong. From the next day the space was open to the public. We both had a chance to hear people’s opinions about the space, their own stories and encourage them to interact with the space or even submit their own work.
Over the weeks, the space had nearly 900 visitors. The Death Café I held at the end of the second week was the busiest I have ever held, and my workshop for parents of young children went very well, with attendees taking away some emotional insights and ideas. Pip’s partner David Gillett held a photographic workshop on the subject of When Death Comes, where participants could submit photo series they had created on the subject, which would then be displayed for the duration of the exhibition. A list of all the events and workshops that were held can be found here.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibition involved an interactive space with four pots, labelled earth, water, fire and air. Visitors could sit and write a message to a dead loved one on rice paper, and then put in one of the pots. The messages would then be ceremonially burnt, buried, sunk and floated away at a later date.
Unfortunately I missed the last week of the exhibition because I was away, but managed to make it back for the closing party. In a way this was good because I got to see the transformation of the space that had taken place through all the new submissions of work while I was gone.
The closing party was a fitting close to not only a month, but nearly a year, of hard work. We revelled and had fun but it was also an emotional time, with speeches and beautiful heart-felt musical performances from Makala Cheung and AnaMika Jithoo.
Both Philippa and myself felt we needed a more personal and fitting final end to the project, something akin to a funeral. So we decided to use the weekend usually celebrating Dias de los Mortes and Halloween to have a ceremonial finish to the project. The date was perfect, as being two weeks after the end of the event, it gave us time to rest, reflect and regather our energies.
We thought it would be nice if we could start the day by transforming the letters to the dead from the pots in the gallery. Pip has plans to transform the air letters and water letters at a later date, but we took this time to burn the fire letters and bury the earth letters.
It was a beautiful crisp autumn day; we took the letters up to Pip’s allotment for burning and burial. We ate apples off the trees and talked about the project. It was a beautiful and fitting ritual to not only the project but for all the people who had attended and shared their stories. We marked the “grave” and the pyre each with a sunflower, which had been a constant symbol through the project, as it was Pip’s mother’s favourite flower.
In the evening, in true “Day of the Dead” style we held a feast, not only for us and those who had been involved and helped in the project, but for our beloved dead as well. Six of other gathered, each of us bringing a dead loved one, and a drink or dish that represented them. I brought my brother and a bottle of Southern Comfort for him; other guests brought salads, an apple pie, Limoncello – and guest of honour was of course Sabine, the inspiration for the whole project; and for her Pip had brought some Lebkuchen German biscuits. We also feasted on Mexican food and talked about our dead… a truly fitting end to what has been an incredible project.
A few weeks on and the effects are still being felt. Pip and I have become firm friends and Pip is now well and truly one of the Not Being Morbid team. We have talked about perhaps collaborating on other projects, in fact it almost goes without saying that we will.
If you didn’t get a chance to visit the exhibition you can still learn more about some of it’s content on the website. Also keep an eye out for future projects.