Life Before Death was a very moving exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. It was a collection of black and white images capturing people just before and just after death. Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels took images of 24 terminally ill patients and interviewed them whilst taking the first image trying to extract their thoughts about their inevitable death. The pictures were crisp photographs on a large scale with a black backdrop. Every blemish, scar and wrinkle was shown to us up close. This gave the viewer an unusual level of intimacy, usually only reserved for those close to the dying.
The first images seemed to encapsulate the subject’s views on death and reflected the worries and fears that they were facing. In contrast, the photographs taken after death seemed to exhibit the ways in which they had learnt to come to terms with their tragedy. For example, one lady when interviewed embodied an overwhelming resentment towards God and started to question his existence. Her after death portrait was the only one of the 24 to be taken inside a coffin, with a white, velvet background giving an almost holy feel to the image. It gave the impression she had accepted her fate and given herself over to a spiritual world.
Some of the more harrowing photographs were of terminally ill children. We found these slightly disturbing and considered the implications of showing these images of people who may have not yet understood the magnitude of their disease.
Untold: An Exploration of Identity in Old Age was a reflection of the Arts & Minds Project at the SW1 Gallery undertaken to illustrate the value of art as a supportive therapy for the elderly. On entering you were confronted by three etchings conveying the mental experience of a patient with dementia. Artistically we thought they were fantastic, but it was hard to relate them to the disease. Moving on, Deborah Padfield’s collection of photgraphs of the elderly depicted them sewn to other people or objects. We thought this demonstrated that they were tied to what they loved and found it warming that they had something to hold onto.
The next part of the exhibition embodied the contribution of the elderly subjects. You were able to sit down in an installation of a typical room in a care home and listen to music made by Fraser Trainer and Peter Whyman from the instruction of the subjects. These inspirational pieces showed an incredible freedom for the residents to express themselves in ways they would not normally be able to. A video accompanied this showing how the residents used hand signals to instruct the musicians what to play, therefore creating “improvised” music.
Finally, we ended on a collection of iconic images of London traced and painted from photographs all of which was done by residents. Some of the paintings had a child-like ethos, which could reflect the way that society views the elderly in the same way they view children; in constant need of care and attention; patronising and demeaning.
By coincidence, on the day we visited the exhibition the residents of one of the centers involved in the project had come in to view the fruits of their labour. A sense of pride and completion graced their faces representing a renewed sense of worth that this project had given to them.
Both of these exhibitions were very touching and allowed us to reflect more about the plights of the elderly and terminally ill.
Soumen & Rupert