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The Practice of Death



What brings a 39 year old man to divert from his usual route to work…to find himself kneeling, charcoal-in-hand, on a large sheet of paper poised to ‘lose himself’ in the process of mark-making?

He’s laid aside his shoes, his car keys, mobile phone and his glasses as he fully commits himself to this moment. The only instruction given is to ‘close your eyes - work from your instinct rather than sight’. With this he waits and then begins moving both arms simultaneously making symmetrical patterns around his body. He pauses, forehead on the paper, as though holding a yoga pose and waits again until he feels the next move. He is remembering his body and recalling what it feels like to use it in its entirety - to bypass his usual thinking, to connect more deeply with a part of himself, which he has somehow deeply undervalued.  The setting is an old tobacco factory which houses a sustainability centre with a gallery space.  But this morning, it’s a haven, a place of sanctuary; still bearing the marks of last night’s performance where twenty others came to do much the same thing.


What brings a middle-aged woman to clear her diary and make her way halfway across the country to find herself muddy-footed and naked, bathed in the light of a projected image?

She’s laid her clothes aside, here in this hidden woodland space in the dead of the night, to mark this moment in time. She too is recalling a part of herself that she has deeply undervalued. She has little idea of who the others are who have also travelled to be part of this 12 hour art process or what caused them to want to be here…but it doesn’t matter – they unite in the not knowing.


Highnoon - The Art of Departure

What brought me to a similar moment in time a few years before this - dropping to my knees at a party (without warning and only after minimal alcohol, may I add) and finding myself slowly and repeatedly hitting my fists on the floor, unable to talk and breathing in a way that reminded me of giving birth? I know I’m a performance artist but…really?! This moment (witnessed by caring friends offering well-meaning and loving advice) lasted about an hour; during which numerous assumptions were made as to what this was about... but I couldn’t respond. I was lost in this moment. It wasn’t until a few months later when I decided to revisit this experience by creating a photographic work that the reason for this unexplained moment started to piece together.  

I had just finished reading The Middle Passage by James Hollis and it became clear to me that I’d hit a point in my life where the internal resources and coping strategies that I’d developed up until this point in my life, were no longer working for me. My ways of interacting with the world were no longer effective. This internal shift had been unexpected…I didn’t see it coming.  Flying in the face of everything that I thought I was, it lifted the lid on some well-contained shadows and left me unable to find my way back. Maybe, back then, I would have called this an emotional breakdown or midlife crisis (many friends around me hit a similar ‘crisis’ shortly after) but I have come to know it now as something essential that we have forgotten to pay attention to - the practice of death.


I began to question this crisis point experienced by so many of us in the West (and not just at mid-life) and to wonder if other cultures had ways of living which avoided, pre-empted or even prepared for this psychological ‘crisis’. Leading people through paper trails of health assessments, waiting lists and months or years of prescribing seemed like a lonely and bewildering route out for many.  Often people are left to navigate their own way out while waiting for appointments…for some the out is taking their own life. 

Through a series of fortunate events and introductions to experts and recommendations of authors such as James Hollis, Bill Plotkin, Clarisa Pinkola Estes, Sharon Blackie, Francis Weller and the theories of Carl Jung; I began to piece together an understanding that it is the rites of passage in many indigenous cultures which are in place to prepare individuals for these significant life transitions and that these rites of passage seem to follow a similar pattern which echoes the life cycle of the natural world: the life-death-life cycle - a continuous process, embracing impermanence, understanding the importance of life (love) and death(grieving) in the natural balance of things and that you can not fully embrace one without the other.  Our fear of death, of the darker side of ourselves, of being so drowned in our grief that we are incapacitated, also keeps us from fully embracing love, relating to others and bringing a connection with life that we crave. 



As a performance artist, I was invited by Katy Lee of Courage Copse Creatives to work on an Arts Council England funded project that she had been awarded that would take place in her woodland in North Devon. Katy (also a dance practitioner, artist and woodlander), Jessica Pearson (a performer/film-maker and director of Shimnix Productions), and I were to research the demise of the Ash tree due to the spread of Ash Dieback. In its time of great risk and possible extinction, we were to create a promenade performance piece alongside community members of different ages that would take place in the woodland using projected film and movement. The performance would celebrate the significance of the Ash; it’s meaning to us, its uses over the centuries and the mythologies surrounding it.  An important part of our research led us to look at the Nordic creation story, which centres round Yggdrasil–the tree of life (some versions believing it to be an Ash).  This mythological tree contained nine worlds and a well of wisdom guarded by three women (the Norms) who represented the 3 stages of life through to death; maiden, mother and crone. Each element of the creation story echoed the life-death-life cycle found in the natural world. 

As part of our six months of research I spent many hours walking through the ash trees in the vast woodland of Arnos Vale and, as the seasons changed, collecting Ash samples from the ground - the leaves, the bud, the flower and the fruit (Ash keys) returning home to experiment - using them to create simple projected images depicting the stages of the tree’s life cycle. These would then be incorporated into a short film at a later stage of the project.  It was particularly symbolic and interesting to us that the trees were growing in between (and even through) some of the graves – the cycle of life and death being demonstrated so clearly.  



Near to the end of this project I had news that I had received funding from an anonymous donor, enabling me to be part of a year-long fellowship programme.  This significant funding allowed me to concentrate on creating an art process, based around the phases of the life-death-life - enabling those who participated to mark and process significant life transitions. The process, High Noon (see http://chalkblack.com/high-noon-woodland/), which runs over a 12hour period from midday until midnight; is based in a private woodland south of Bristol.  Although into its sixth year, it still feels as vital and necessary for each person who comes – vital for themselves but also vital to witness each other’s experience and consciously be part of the natural world. 

Working as a performance artist in the field of transition and the practice of death was not in my plan in my younger years.  In fact I’d framed myself as being an optimist and someone who is able to see solutions and plan steps forward with ease – working with youth and substance misuse services I used these skills daily. However, death, diagnosis of chronic illness and pain flew in the face of this and posed a much deeper psychological and philosophical challenge for me.  I would unconsciously avoid circumstances around this. There seemed to be a huge chasm between living life and then facing death/chronic illness/ grief – one being the opposite of the other. The later revelation that they are flip sides of the same coin - that death is as necessary to living as it is to dying, was like starting from scratch again. Like the Buddhist belief that energy never dies or is created – life and death are energy that keeps transforming. It allowed me to stop subscribing to societal pressure around illness, being ‘signed off work’, mental health and death itself.  It’s a gift to be taught this; I owe thanks for the first steps of this lesson to some of those I met when I worked in substance misuse services many years ago – those who knew how to live with death and life in one hand and find self-acceptance and recovery in this.



Artists like me aren’t so interested in creating a finished art piece so much as creating a vessel from space and time. We do this to allow something to happen in this liminal space between the coming into the space and the going out – something that is temporary and shifting so you have to be part of it to experience it.  I often use a combination of projected image and hands-on preparation of organic materials (often black pigment dug from the coastline in North Devon, chalk from the South coast, Hampshire or charcoal directly from the woodland) as ways of helping others to experience and interact with the space – this being a form of performance. As a site-specific artist, the space is often as important as any other element – sometimes because of its heritage/cultural significance, because it’s a place which people value or because it has been left to become.

Having attended a Death and Performance Symposium as part of Manchester’s Sick! Festival earlier this year (see https://theatrebristol.net/sick-festival-tb-agent-jo-bushell-shares-her-experience/) it is clear that there’s a call to see a revolution around death much like the revolution around natural birth in the 1960’s. As filmmaker Steven Eastward (who attended the symposium) put it -

‘Death needs new images’. Perhaps they will be wild, dark images, which remind us of a part of ourselves that we have been taught to devalue or even disown? But just like the cycle of life we see in the natural world - it is death that feeds life. Steven Eastward

Maybe by trying to continuously live in just one Instagram-worthy season of that cycle, we are all thumping our fists on the floor that separates us from being connected to the totality of who we are? If we are not finding ways within society to legitimise this practice of death and given time and space to experience this; how do we navigate major life transitions - the grief of moving on from one part of life to embrace another? Will we, like soul-adolescents, find our own haphazard, destructive versions of initiation that keep us living estranged in the shadows of the life we could know?

‘Grief ripens us, pulls up from the depths of our souls what is most authentic in our beings’. Francis Weller  

As a social practice artist, when not directly working with the themes of life/death, grief, chronic illness and life transition; I’m exploring related themes such as eco-psychology, community, myth and heritage or on specific environmental projects. Throughout my practice, I have worked in mental health and substance misuse services, youth services, multicultural, multi-generational and home education groups or in schools, at festivals, conferences and public spaces.

I am also a member of Vulgar Earth – a collective of environmental artists.

Chalkblack.com

https://www.instagram.com/chalkblack_jo/?hl=en

Joanna@chalkblack.com

This blog was originally written for Arnos Vale Cemetery 2019

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A Gathering of Unasked Possibility | 14-20 November 2019

Centrespace Gallery | 6 Leonard Lane, Bristol BS1 1EA

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