To be with someone in their dying moments is arguably the most intimate experience we can share. I feel immensely privileged to have done so. It’s not one that many of us will experience more than a handful of times in our lives, if that. But those moments – suspended in a different realm of time and space – are formative and stay with us forever.
To be with someone in their dying moments is arguably the most intimate experience we can share.
While death as a subject is ubiquitous throughout contemporary art, the experience of being with dying is strangely absent. In recent years, many artists and curators have attended to healthcare, illness and palliative care as integral to life’s fabric but which have until now been strikingly overlooked in cultural discourse, and it is still hard to find artworks that attempt to bridge the experience of this most poignant moment of life. As Barbara Hammer remarked in her inspiring lecture and parting gift to the world, The Art of Dying, 2018, ‘There is a general fear of talking about death in the western world. It is as if by not mentioning and discussing it, it would go away’. The truism of ‘Life’s one certainty’ is one which few of us think about before we have to. AA Bronson and those most affected by the AIDS crisis have had to confront the reality of loved ones dying more times than anyone ever should, and embroiled in pain, injustice and anger. While Bronson has never shied away from talking of it, he has also found himself faced with the impossibility of doing so: ‘What is there to say of death. We live and then we die. While we live, we are surrounded by the dying, and by the dead. We are all dying’. Abrupt, unemotional, factual. Perhaps the intimacy and intensity of those slow weeks, days and hours of losing those he loved the most was impossible to relay to others. Of course, there are exceptions that prove the rule. The 11- minutes of Sophie Calle’s film Pas pu saisir la mort (Impossible to Catch Death), 2007, edited from many hours of footage, captures the ungraspable moments where life slips into death, when Calle and the attendant nurses were unsure whether her mother had passed away. But the film does little to evoke the emotional weight of the space. Steven Eastwood, who spent many months filming four people in a hospice on the Isle of Wight navigating the last days of their lives, experienced the practical difficulty of being present as someone drew their final breath. His film ISLAND, 2018, fearlessly holds a static shot of the final 7-minutes of Alan Hardy’s life, refusing to give relief from the sight of his rhythmic rasping breaths as they gradually slow to a halt. We are not implicated in this death – it was an inevitable, natural and everyday occurrence – and he was a willing participant, yet it is nevertheless uncomfortable. Christodoulos Panayiotou, too, comes close to sharing the shifting nuance and intimacy of dying in his performance lecture Dying on Stage, 2019. Amongst his mash up of famed deaths in the public eye, are the performances of Rudolf Nureyev and of Amy Winehouse that we retrospectively recognise as the moments preceding their pained demise. Especially chilling is a clip of Nina Simone singing Feelings on stage, seemingly to herself rather than to her audience; she’s at breaking point, existing somewhere between her old reality and her departure to somewhere else.
While death as a subject is ubiquitous throughout contemporary art, the experience of being with dying is strangely absent.
Elsewhere, we consume death in abundance through tv, film and literature. We are thrilled, entertained and yes, even sometimes deeply moved. But do we really sense the reality and intensity of the emotion, and – even – the possibility of beauty in the intimacy in sharing the space of the dying? In Dodie Bellamy’s essay ‘Phone Home’ in When the Sick Rule the World, she aligns the experience of her mother’s death with that of E.T., watching the filmic death for clues as to how to navigate her mother’s final hours; not knowing where else to look for guidance. Unincorporated into the fabric of living and distanced from the intimacies of dying, when we eventually have to confront the experience of dying, we’re often left floundering, so rarely does our culture prepare us for its reality. As Hammer continued in her lecture, ‘We do ourselves a disservice to not engage in ruminations of this most powerful life force for aren’t we alive until our last breath and isn’t this a rite of passage we wish to address in our art in our seminars and in our museum exhibitions. By hesitating to face the last phase of life we give a message to hush up and avoid’. The question nevertheless prevails: how do we get close to relaying this most profound and private experience of life?
There is a general fear of talking about death in the western world. It is as if by not mentioning and discussing it, it would go away
I am lucky to have been able to share the dying moments of several people I love dearly and I have never felt closer to those around me. Privately to friends, I likened the intense intimacy to that of bondage: the heightened intensity of the senses, the vulnerability of the flesh, the emotional being indistinguishable from the corporal, as mimetic rhythmic breath takes on a dialogue between bodies. I found an ally in these thoughts in the work of artist Alex Dermatis, whose performance practice combines aerial ropework with influences from tantra and Kinbaku-style bondage (a sensual, emotive form of traditional Japanese Shibari rope tying), but who has also experienced being present through a loved-one’s death. Unconsciously, we had both in our separate experiences taken on what Kathy Acker writes of as ‘the language of the body’. In her essay, Against Ordinary Language: the Language of the Body, she describes her daily body-building routine as an immersive experience: the intense concentration on the body, differing vastly from the rest of life, is a complex and rich world, yet one that she found impossible to describe in words. Crossing the threshold into the gym, a corporal language takes over: her normal ‘masses of swirling thought, verbalised insofar as I am conscious of them, disappear as mind or thought begins to focus’, replaced instead with counting, as she pushes each muscle group to their limit. Acker describes this journey into her own body as a process of moving closer ‘toward foreignness, into strangeness’, revealing the chasm between ‘my body’ and ‘I’. She sees in bodybuilding an attempt to try to understand and control the physical in the face of the body’s inevitable demise. Sharing the intimacy of the death bed, Dermatis and I had taken on this language beyond words that existed in the counting of inhalations, pauses, and exhalations, attention to minimal muscle contractions and the slightest of movements, in an attempt to attune ourselves to the inevitable. As Acker writes, as the bodybuilder counts their own breath, they count their body’s mortality.
What is there to say of death. We live and then we die. While we live, we are surrounded by the dying, and by the dead. We are all dying
Over the past year, Dermatis has been resident ropework artist at Berlin’s famed fetish club, KitKat. For up to eight hours at a time, they have full responsibility for someone else’s body; filtering out the noise and distraction of the club, Dermatis must attune completely with their collaborator’s body, sensing its intricacies and the limits of its endurance with the same attention and intensity as Acker speaks of her own. Outside of the public audience, Dermatis hosts private paid sessions from a home-studio; individuals hand over agency of their bodies, entrusting it, object-like and liberating themselves from the responsibly. Dermatis’ practice–by their own description–sits somewhere between artist and sex-worker, providing the nuanced sensual expertise that both these professions specialise in, intimately negotiating each patron’s physical–and mental–strengths and vulnerabilities. Ego is left at the door; this is the intimate communication between two bodies. Blindfolded and bound, tantalisingly aware of one’s vulnerability (on heterosexuality, Jesse Darling once–flippantly but poignantly–said to me, ‘the only thing that is exciting about sleeping with men is that you know he could kill you – but he won’t’), with sight and freedom of movement removed, the body tingles with anticipation as the senses are heightened to the extreme: reading signs of intention through breath brushing the skin; physical proximity sensed through radiating warmth; and interpreting movement through the smallest of sounds. The boundary of one’s self no longer stops at the outer layer of skin, but consumes all the variables within proximity, amalgamating in the sensory imagination of the body. In Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay ‘Situated Knowledge’, she wrote, ‘bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic nodes. Their boundaries materialise in social interaction’; they are tentative, volatile, and always incomplete, in constant conversation. If boundaries–and therefore all objects and bodies–do not exist, but are only drawn by a reality imposed through mapping practices – such as enacting the self, separate and distinct from other beings – when the social interactions we use to define our boundaries of self are removed or shifted, new intimacies are found as boundaries between us become permeable. Sitting around the deathbed of my paternal grandfather, with my close family, tuning our attention to the straining movement of muscles drawing in his every breath, our oneness transcended the simplicity of amalgamated chromosomes. Likewise, the trusting intimate oneness between Dermatis’ and his collaborator is more than gravitational mathematics. Poignantly, during Hammer’s The Art of Dying lecture, intended as a letter to the next generation of artists and filmmakers, she chose to show her film Dyketactics, 1974, a montage of intimacy, joy and love between friends during a trip to the countryside: body parts don’t belong to any one person in particular, but meld together through overlaid film. As Haraway put it, ‘boundaries shift from within’. We collectively make these environments: our closeness, intimacy, and oneness are the creation of the imagination.
Privately to friends, I likened the intense intimacy to that of bondage: the heightened intensity of the senses, the vulnerability of the flesh, the emotional being indistinguishable from the corporal, as mimetic rhythmic breath takes on a dialogue between bodies.
In Helen Keller’s wonderful chapter ‘The Power of Touch’, she writes, ‘Allusions to moonbeams and clouds do not emphasise the sense of my affliction: they carry my soul beyond affliction’s narrow actuality’. As Keller describes her blindness and deafness as sharpening her other senses, heightening the intensity of sensory experiences, bondage–by limiting the physical possibilities–empowers the imagination, provoking the possibility of a more intense closeness to another. Of course, limitation can take many forms. In Jean Genet’s film, Un chant d’amour, 1950, confined and otherwise denied physical interaction, a vivid homoerotic world plays out in the imagination of two prisoners. A hole in the wall between their cells allows them to share the smoke of a cigarette. Consummated with this most tenuous of touches, the gesture is an intimate and sensuous exchange–sharing air from one’s lungs to the other’s–, creating a bond to counteract their physical oppression. The removal of unconstrained freedom intensifies the autonomy of an internal imaginary.
The intense concentration on the body, differing vastly from the rest of life, is a complex and rich world
There is also an intimacy of interdependence that is found in entangling one’s limited possibilities with that of another to form a whole. Take for example, Adam de la Cour and Neil Luck’s collective performance, 2012 of Kurt Schwitters sound poem Ursonate: connected by a 6-foot plastic tube, Neil provided the lungs, larynx and vocal folds while Adam articulated this raw sound into Schwitters’ words through the movement of his mouth. In the midst of lock-down, artist Sam Belinfante’s two-part radio show on touch, proposed that the moments when vision is obscured and contact is obstructed or forbidden are some of our most tender. Amongst many contemporary and classical artistic and musical attempts of making contact across ‘seemingly impassable divides’ (including Cour and Luck’s Ursonate), Belinfante notes that most famous and powerful of images: Michelangelo’s God reaching out to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the power of creation and the possibility of giving life through this singular moment of touch. Their fingers to do quite make contact but the force of intention, will and anticipation is electrifying. It is perhaps through the intensity of this almost-touch–enabling entanglement with another through the imaginary–that the intimacy of being with someone in their dying moments can be evoked.
Bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic nodes. Their boundaries materialise in social interaction; they are tentative, volatile, and always incomplete, in constant conversation
In one of Manon de Boer’s most potent works, Dissonant, 2010, dancer Cynthia Loemij attentively listens to Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.2 for Solo Violin of 1923; once the music stops the camera follows her contorting, flailing body, controlled yet giving into the weight of her limbs, hands and feet rhythmically thumping the floor. Filmed in 16mm, the image breaks to black while the film reel is replenished, keeping contact with Loemij only through the sound of her increasingly panting breaths. Forced to listen to the breath emanating from her tiring body, as well as our own, an affinity is drawn between the two bodies, Loemij’s and our own. The visceral impact of listening intently in darkness to someone else’s shortened breath, evokes both emotional affect and mimetic response. Bringing our breath in line hers, we become intimately aware of both our body and the one we watch, which, without instruction, quietly undertakes a bewildering matrix of biotic mechanics. Weary of the dualism between ‘flesh and spirit’, during the last decade of his life, author Yukio Mishima became obsessed with bodybuilding, seeking to revive from the dead muscles that had become redundant in contemporary life. In training involuntary muscles into voluntary ones, Mishima describes bringing the mind and body together to create for a short while their own ‘miniature universe’, independent from the outside world. (Simone de Beavoir, similarly wrote about the world existing within the walls of a hospital room as she watched her mother’s body fade away during her last days, the outside world a disconnected stage set, populated with extras). As with many of de Boer’s works, situated in the pensive space of individuals deep in concentration, Dissonant invites us into one such miniature universe. Watching Loemij’s muscles give into tiredness and falter, brings to mind Mishima’s proposal that, in the undeniable interdependence between consciousness and physical suffering, the persistence of bodily distress clarifies–and proves–consciousness. Unlike the ethically conflicted distress provoked in the works of Franko B, Ron Athey and other artists who utilise their physical pain as material, it is the success of de Boer in evoking unconflicted empathy for bodily distress that brings her work close to understanding being with mortality.
Tuning our attention to the straining movement of muscles drawing in his every breath, our oneness transcended the simplicity of amalgamated chromosomes
Mishima’s concept of transcendence through pain, is further expanded in his writing on boxing where he describes placing a blow on an opponent not as a direct physical attack, but as a counter. The opponent becomes half of a complete action, as in Genet’s shared cigarette smoke, Hammer’s overlaid bodies or Dermatis’ corporal compositions where collaborators blend into a single form. But for Mishima it is the sensation of pain–rather than movement–in the interaction that provides the physical expression of consciousness. It brings to mind Viola Di Gancio, 2006, where fishhooks piercing through the skin of Santiago Genochio’s back pulled taut the strings of Tessa Wills’ cello, as she played from several meters away. Visible corporeal pain heightened awareness of their collaborative performativity, interdependence and exacting skill of manoeuvring bodies and instrument; each becoming an extension of the other–skin, muscle, bow, strings and hands working in synchronicity, each redundant without the others–trembling in the face of pain and endeavour. Acker writes that inevitably, time and again, failing to achieve that next milestone, the bodybuilder meets that which cannot be finally controlled or known. In opening this window into the inner workings of her body, confronted by its corporeal limitations, she describes facing her own death. LA-based artist Cassils, follows in Acker’s footsteps. Refusing to take steroids or undergo surgery, he treats the body as a sculptural form, ‘a continual becoming’, using its malleability to transform his female body to a male one through intensive training and diet, a process that operates in the corporeal space of ‘indeterminacy, spasm and slipperiness’. In Becoming an Image, 2012-ongoing, this slipperiness is extended out into the multitude of bodies in the room. Performing in an entirely light-locked space, Cassils’ frantic action–uppercuts, jabs, hooks, knees, elbows and shins meeting a 2000lb mound of clay with brute force in the centre of the room–is fleetingly illuminated by the intermittent flash of a camera, imprinting momentary visual fragments on one’s retinas. Melding with the sound of panting, grunts and limbs meeting clay, the imagined body is stitched together from visceral fragments, held in the shared imagination of both performer and witnesses, belonging entirely to neither. At the core of Cassils’ work is struggle and survival; whilst exuding the violence inflicted on the trans body, performing this within the presence of others Cassils’ body becomes one that is intimately shared, held and created in the collective space.
What do you carry that carries you?
These shifting boundaries shaped through social interaction with the audience are expanded in the work of Okwui Okpokwasili to unfold those accumulated over generations. In her spectacularly lucid piece Bronx Gothic, 2014, Okpokwasili’s body shakes and trembles, wild and stressed, eyes rolling and tendons straining, yet controlled with virtuosic skill and strength, calling to the surface a lineage of inherited experience of the black female body: unarticulated and unpronounceable but ever-present. Her work Sitting on a Man’s Head (2018) furthers this to harness kinaesthetic empathy, challenging her audience to become participants in her archaeological uncovering of the body: packed together, walking slowly collectively, time slowed, long stretches of silence listening intently to each other’s breath and muffled whispers, interrupted occasionally by layers of words or song that surface, recede and perhaps resurface again later. She describes the space as one where ‘we are compelled to listen to each other and be linked together’. Something closer to mindfulness than performance, she demands both a complicity and a connectedness from her audience, embedded and embodied in our bodies as much as in her own. As with the deathbed or the bound body, there is a porosity that reaches beyond consciousness, blurring the binary of mind/body, and the boundary of one’s self and that of another. Bringing vastly different experiences of the same moment together, like a murmuration of birds, each responding to interactions depending on those around them. For Okpokwasili the intimacy of Sitting on a Man’s Head translates far beyond the performance space: ‘What is it to make a space where people understand that they’re being heard and know that what they give is essential?’, and most poignantly ‘What do you carry that carries you?’
She demands both a complicity and a connectedness from her audience, embedded and embodied in our bodies as much as in her own
In Octavia E Butler’s cult dystopian sci-fi trilogy, the Patternist series, characters are involuntarily linked to one another telepathically, transcending spatial limitations; invisible threads reach out through space, binding them to one another. Last September, at DRAF’s now legendary annual performance evening during Frieze week, the international art scene crammed into the Ministry of Sound. During Hannah Perry’s performance, on a frenetic strobe-lit stage, a track-suited twenty-something runs on the spot overlaid with an amplified fast-paced, content-packed monologue, amongst which a few words: ‘Lakey telling us to watch your belongings / Your RINGS ARE your inheritance / or next month’s rent OR / we by gold, we cash checks / watch your belongings’. Unexpected and out of context, those few short phrases, the fondly-remembered razor sharp wit of Lakey, a dear friend who died too young, sent shivers through me and a moment of melancholic detachment from my soundings. He wasn’t in the art world. Nobody else in that space–but Perry and two others dotted around that vast venue–knew the weight of those words. As her performer continued running to exhaustion, I knew that I shared a moment of silent internal contemplation, a pang love and loss, with the three others–somewhere–in that huge dark, strobing nightclub; a poignant moment unnoticed by the rest of the vast audience. I am reminded of the Patternists. As with Butler’s characters, we share a common unarticulated yet unshakable bond, pulling us together. A bond–whilst full of love–that we’d prefer not to be necessary.
In the aura of death all the bullshit dissolves–the one dying is vulnerable, aching for touch, the dying body pulls both of you into the present moment –Dodie Bellamy
Bellamy writes, ‘In the aura of death all the bullshit dissolves – the one dying is vulnerable, aching for touch, the dying body pulls both of you into the present moment’. We don’t feel the fragility of sentient existence until the body’s corporeal limits are exposed and urgent vulnerability of the flesh necessitates us being acutely present: a new-born unable to fend for itself; the bodybuilder incapable of pushing for the final bench-press; the bound body confined by ropes and gravity; the deathbed, the lifespan of the body facing its inevitable expiration, unable to push for one last breath. To answer Okpokwasili’s question: we are carrying one another, balancing responsibility, compassion and vulnerability, and in ‘the body’s inexorable movement towards its final failure’, opening a window to what Acker describes as that which ‘consciousness ordinarily cannot see’. As Dermatis’ performers describe the feeling of suspension within their web of ropes, held by the collaboration of another sentient being and the materiality of the rigging, held in place by metal pegs embedded in concrete walls, through the foundations of the building underground, on the Earth held in place through its gravitational spinning; in sharing someone’s death with them, we are bound together, firmly present in the moment. A fleeting intimate togetherness in time, tying us perfectly together momentarily.
We are carrying one another, balancing responsibility, compassion and vulnerability, in the body’s inexorable movement towards its final failure
In sharing someone’s death with them, we are bound together, firmly present in the moment. A fleeting intimate togetherness in time, tying us perfectly together momentarily