Life. Death. Whatever exhibition at Sutton House, London puts our mortality and the taboos around dying firmly in the frame
When faced with a “coffin playground”, a room featuring three full-size coffins filled to the brim with brightly coloured plastic balls, the most macabre adult-size ball pools you’ve ever seen, there is a degree of awkward shuffling before anyone has the courage to dive in.
Drinks in hand, palpable discomfort as one among us lies prostrate inside the coffin with her hands folded over her chest, face resting in a beatific smile, before giggling, we are at the opening night of Life. Death. Whatever, an art exhibition about mortality.
“We’re all dying, just at different rates,”
Louise De Winter, funeral celebrant.
The National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney is an appropriate venue for an exhibition looking at our inevitable deaths. It has medieval foundations, a Tudor kitchen, Jacobean and Georgian interiors, an Edwardian chapel and 1980s graffiti – remnants of the various layers of life this residence has hosted, from its nascent days as home to one of Henry VIII’s privy counsellors, to becoming an ‘80s socialist squat and rave venue.
Good Death Movement
Life.Death.Whatever is the brainchild of two key members of the ‘good death movement’. They want to bring conversations about death and dying into a denialist society which sanitises mortality, removes death from sight and so struggles against it when it happens. They are Louise de Winter, a funeral celebrant nicknamed “the Mary Poppins of Death” by the American press, and end-of-life doula Anna Lyons.
“We’re all dying, just at different rates,” says De Winter. But the London-based 29-year-old former fashion executive is keen to make clear that she’s “not trying to put the ‘fun’ in funeral”. Nor is Lyons, 40, an end-of-life doula (much like a beginning-of-life doula) whose job it is to support a person emotionally, spiritually and practically at the end.
The duo took to social media earlier this year to ask artists to respond to a brief about death and chose the best submissions for the Sutton House exhibition. They had to persuade the National Trust to go with it and some of the more risqué elements (such as a drawing of an old woman stolidly ignoring the grim reaper, titled Fuck Off I’m ‘aving A Cup of Tea, by Kimberley Thomas) were only sanctioned at last minute – the word “fuck” had a paper butterfly over it until moments before press night.
The centrepiece of the show is the aforementioned “coffin playground” (sponsored by Ecoffins no less), which alongside the ball pools includes chalk for visitors to scrawl messages on the coffins and opportunities for in-coffin selfies. It provides a few moments of levity in an exhibition which is at times deeply personal, acute in its presentation of grief and at others almost grisly in how strongly it jabs its finger at the departed and asks “Where did you go?”
But, as De Winter remarks, there is not a skull or day of the dead symbol in sight. The ancient Tudor rooms, with their blackened ancestral portraits, jostle with raw and honest modern art. An attic room nicknamed “the squat” is transformed back into one to represent the loss of Laura Dee Milnes’ father. His remains were found some time after he had died in a room like this. Photos of the real man are pegged up smilingly, ashtrays overflow, the stuff of ordinary life lies abandoned, but there is also a sofa bearing a dark human-shaped smudge, a fabric throw-turned-shroud, marking the location of his death and the impact of his decaying body.
In the Edwardian Chapel you can hear the life stories of hospice residents from the Bay Area in California, USA. Thoughts in Passing by Claire Bicen is a beautiful collection of real peoples’ lives and emotions at the point at which they are getting ready to die – the voice recordings are accompanied by fine pencil drawings of each person. Sitting in the regimented chapel rows, the stories are a celebration of a changing world, in which the elderly talk frankly about everything from sex to bodily functions. It is really extraordinarily moving.
Another work, Unsaid, an old twisty staircase covered in postcards invites visitors to write the things they wished they’d said to someone they lost. It isn’t just death in its absolute sense this work is interested in, it is also the loss of relationships, the end of life hopes. The first card I turn over says: “Why did you never call?!!”
Death is still a taboo in British society and so holding an exhibition about it hasn’t pleased everyone. “The responses have been so varied and strong. From people who have loved it and embraced everything in the house to one lady who thought what we were doing was damaging,” says De Winter.
“Others have been shocked by the content of the Unsaid staircase. Some children have been scared of the exhibits [in particular Mummers by Laura Ford, a sculpture of life-size figures in what seems to be a playground scene, except one of the children lies on the floor, possibly dead]. While others have had a great time diving into the coffin ballpit and writing in chalk.”
Life. Death. Whatever is at Sutton House, Homerton High Street, London, until 30 October