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‘Ars Moriendi: the art of dying’ at Wellcome Collection now

8 March 2011

Joanna Walsh’s ‘Ars Moriendi: the art of dying’ is an artwork being created in the foyer space of Wellcome Collection, exploring our relationship with death through personal and quietly affecting drawings. Here, the artist talks about her project.

"It all started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain. She is having what most people consider to be a 'good' death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something not everyone is lucky enough to experience.

"In a culture where we readily brush death under the carpet (and the dying off to hospital) her presence has necessarily become part of my life. I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalized culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for.

"I investigated art from Wellcome Library, including Ars Moriendi, the medieval instruction manual for a 'good' death in the Christian tradition, but also portrayals of death from other cultures and other eras: vanitas art designed to remind the living owner of the precarious nature of mortality, and grave goods from ancient civilisations made to ensure a smooth transition for the soul from its before- to after-death existence.

"I was surprised and impressed by the beauty and delicacy of the objects I found associated with such a dark and difficult subject. I wanted to make something that responded to these qualities.

"I chose to work at Sobell House Hospice because, although it cares for patients who need more medical attention than would be possible in their own homes, it allows patients, their families and friends to create their own environments, altering them as much or as little as they desire and circumstances allow.

"At the hospice I became interested in the personal objects patients find important to have with them, and how some seem familiar from the images I found at Wellcome - flowers, pictures, clocks - while others remain entirely personal.

"As in the original Ars Moriendi, residents are also encouraged (if they like) to prepare for death by creating something themselves: through music, art, writing or religious contemplation. In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few modern visual traditions surrounding 'a good death'.

"My final work, a large drawing on glass, reflects what I saw at Sobell.I used white on black. Both are traditionally associated with death in many cultures. Wanting to bring dying into the light, I decided to draw in public. And I chose to situate the work opposite the Wellcome Collection's cafe and bookshop so that it could serve the same meditative function as vanitas and Ars Moriendi art."

See 'Ars Moriendi' take shape at Wellcome Collection until 20 March.

Image: ‘Dayroom’, from a collection of sketches from Sobell House Hospice.
Credit: Joanna Walsh.

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