Should we prepare for death as much as we prepare for birth? Could we celebrate death as much as we celebrate birth? These are the fundamental questions artist-researcher, Peta Murray, invites us to contemplate during her beautiful 80 minutes piece, vigil/wake.
This two-part work invites us to take time out to confront our mortality. It is never morbid or macabre but a sincere and informative observance on how we view death and it is an inventory of what really know about it.
Murray does describe her piece as this, an observance, which helps to set a context from the outset. The audience was limited to 12 for each performance. We were guided into the first room, a hospital room. This was confronting for me; I was not exactly too thrilled to spend me evening sitting on a chair in a gloomy room amongst strangers staring at an imaginary person’s death bed. Memories of the few times I had been in this very situation flooded back to me. I was concerned that I, along with others, things would be triggered – distressful times, guilt and anguish. I braced myself and surreptitiously watched the other participants’ faces. A heart monitor was beeping, the bed was draped in the standard, white hospital linen and a lamp above the pillow was the only mellow and gentle aspect of the room. We passed around and used hand sanitiser; the participants all dutifully following Murray’s instructions.
So, sitting around this bed Murray’s eyes met each on of ours as she sat bedside holding a folder that resemble a large storybook. With rehearsed poise, she began introducing the idea of vigil. She was like a cross between an efficient no-nonsense doctor and your favourite teacher at primary school.
She shared some of her research, surprising research that provided statistics on how we people die and also statistics on the lack of planning we have towards our deaths. Murray asked us to re-group ourselves in order of youngest to oldest just to bring the point home of time ticking.
It became personal for Murray as she spoke about her mother who had recently passed away and using the art of ritual, placed items belonging to her mother underneath the pillow. This personal story illustrating that everyone has their very own private stories about losing a loved one.
We were then invited to move to another outside corridor which resembled a long chapel bedecked with small alcoves adorned with flowers and prayerful one-line thoughts. We were all offered black veils with which to cover ourselves. During this second stage, we were to sit alone and cast our minds back to our childhood and write our first encounters with death or loss after which we were then to move forward to more recent times. This was an easy task for most of us; participants wrote continuously and fluently from what I observed, this exercise perhaps taking them back to times of reflection in a school classroom many years ago. It was reverent, peaceful and possibly cathartic for some.
The last room we entered after we left our clipboards and veils in the long chapel (which had a subtle smell of incense the whole time), was the room where the wake would occur. An almost joyful vibe permeated this room no bigger than your average bedroom. Old pre-loved items left behind after death were creatively placed around the room. There was a writing desk, a high chair with doll, a tape recorder with an opened case full of cassettes, a tallboy full of trinkets and in the corner, a table groaning with delightful cakes, sandwiches and hot beverages. We all quickly accepted this hospitality and started to mingle with each other and started to handle the objects in the room. Someone pressed play on the tape recorder, others starting conversation about how different object reminded them of things.
The centrepiece of the room was a vanitas which I learnt is a symbolic work expressive of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. We were not permitted to touch this centrepiece only to admire its power to evoke many of the themes of Murray’s piece. It dominated the room in a gentle yet provocative way.
We were at a wake and was enjoying the ritual without the sadness and mixed emotions that would usually accompany you at a real funeral. It was an odd but enjoyable occasion but I was glad when Murray entered the room to finish proceedings with a poem.
We were then free to leave.
We had been surprised, reflective, moved, social and reverent. All in 80 minutes and all guided by a wise and sincere artist.