Death is both everywhere and nowhere. As Karl Ove Knausgaard astutely observes at the opening of his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, “We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death. Nonetheless, there are few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in it.” Nothing is more certain in life than death. Yet nothing is more evaded and hidden away.
Performance maker Ellie Harrison wants to bring death out into the open. For the last few years, her artistic work has revolved pretty much exclusively around death and bereavement. It began with the solo show Etiquette of Grief, created in response to her own experiences of losing loved ones (a friend has described her as an “experiential expert in grief”). To Harrison’s surprise, the show turned her into a “grief magnet”; increasingly, people came to her with their stories of loss and bereavement.
“I realised that there was much more of a need to find spaces where people can have these difficult conversations than I’d realised,” says Harrison. Her response to this was need was The Grief Series: a seven part cycle of artworks, each in response to one of the seven stages of grief (shock and denial; pain and guilt; anger and bargaining; depression, reflection and loneliness; the upward turn; reconstruction and working through; acceptance and hope). For each project she’s worked with artists across different mediums, from photography to sculpture, as well as collaborating with academics, clinicians and faith leaders. Harrison describes the huge undertaking, which will have consumed most of a decade by the time it’s complete, as “a combination of ambition and stupidity”.
At its heart, though, is a strikingly simple gesture. In today’s culture of speed and busyness, Harrison suggests that “giving someone else your time and attention feels like quite a radical act”. The various artworks in The Grief Series each issue an invitation to slow down, carving spaces out of the relentless rush of modern life for memory and reflection. Harrison describes them as an antidote to the “hurry sickness” of the twenty-first century.
The reactions received by each of the projects so far testify to the need they fulfil. “I’ve been really overwhelmed by the responses of people,” Harrison tells me. “Everyone’s been very forthcoming and very honest and very open, which has been wonderful.” And while the work is dealing with difficult content, not all of the emotions it provokes are negative. “Although we’re talking about death or anger, we’re more often than not talking about love,” says Harrison. “So actually it’s far more hopeful than I’d ever anticipated it would be.”
Care is crucial to work of this nature. Harrison explains that “it’s about embedding care in from the very first moment of an idea, rather than trying to get to the end of a process and then go ‘how can we look after people?’ It needs to be embedded in the ethos of the work.” She is also careful to be clear about what The Grief Series is and isn’t doing. “I will hold my hands up and say I’m not a qualified therapist, I don’t want to be; I’m a layman who’s really happy to listen and really happy to have a conversation. We’re very clear about saying something can be therapeutic without being therapy.”
Politeness, too, has a complicated place in The Grief Series. It’s a recurring term in Harrison’s manifesto for the series, yet politeness – and a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip politeness in particular – can often get in the way of us sharing and talking about our experiences of grief. “Partly politeness from my part isn’t a choice, it’s something that’s been drummed into me,” says Harrison. “But partly I lean into that and I make fun of that politeness, because I think from talking to lots of people that have experienced bereavement the biggest barrier to them talking about it is shame. And so rather than saying that there’s no place for politeness I think it’s better to acknowledge it and acknowledge that sometimes politeness can cause real problems for people.”
The Grief Series is also about the possibility of reinventing our culturally specific grief rituals. “I’m really interested to learn about how different cultures approach death and also how we might reimagine our rituals,” says Harrison, mentioning the Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico and contrasting these with our quieter, more reserved funeral and memorial traditions. “In Britain our grief rituals are characterised by silence,” she observes. “I think silence is an interesting tool, but it’s not the only one.”
But the work’s resonance goes beyond mourning rituals. The Unfair, which is about to have outings in Leeds and Brighton, uncannily captures the spirit of the present. Its theme, anger, is relevant not just to grieving but to many aspects of contemporary life. As we approach the third major national vote in three years, it’s clear that lots of people across Britain are feeling angry with our political system and the problems it has failed to solve. In this context, Harrison is interested in asking “what we do with our anger and whether anger could be a source of positive change”. She continues: “I think at its heart anger’s an energetic state, so I have questions about what we might do with that energy and whether that could be transformative instead of destructive, or as well as destructive.”
As the name suggests, The Unfair takes the form of a funfair, only with attractions with names like ‘bottle it up’ and ‘wipe the slate clean’. The format is a “gift”, says Harrison. “People intuitively know, spatially, how to engage with a funfair. They know that it’s a space for hitting things or making noise or having fun. We’re used to going to a funfair and hitting a test your strength thing or screaming on a ride, so it’s an interesting way of breaking down some of those inhibitions that we might have about approaching anger.” The nature of the installation also allows participants to meet it on their own terms. “You can come to The Unfair and do a bit of angry karaoke, but you also can come and spend a long time and have a deeper engagement or a more serious engagement with the work as well.”
It’s particularly important to Harrison to create space for IRL conversations in a culture saturated with online, anonymised rage. “We’re getting people having conversations that are much more compassionate than if they were interacting online,” she insists. “There’s a real power in having spaces where people can look each other in the eye and recognise each other as human beings. I know that sounds very twee, but I think it feels quite vital at the moment. It’s too easy for us to live in our online bubbles.”
Because it’s cheap or free and often located in public spaces where accidental audiences can stumble across it, The Grief Series has attracted a wide range of different participants. Harrison describes it as “contemporary art by stealth”, emphasising both product and process. “The series tries to retain the warmth of community arts practice but use the conceptual and aesthetic rigour of contemporary art,” she says. “For me, the product is equally important to the process, whereas I think sometimes contemporary art can be all about the product and with community art it can be all about the process. I’m trying to do both, which is perhaps again a stupidly ambitious task, but one I think is worth pursuing.”
What Is Left?, a series of portraits taken in participants’ homes and then exhibited in empty houses, is a prime example of what Harrison is trying to achieve. That piece was as much about the interaction with participants, who were photographed with an object they had inherited from someone who had died and interviewed for an audio track, as it was about the finished work that was eventually shared. Other projects have included a collection of illustrated resources for planning a funeral and a performance installation offering space and time for remembrance.
The final two parts of The Grief Series will look different again. For part six, Harrison is travelling between sites of remembrance with an installation for a domestic caravan (“it can be open to people in a lay-by or a summer fete or in a gallery context”). Then the series is culminating with a Leeds-based Dia de los Muertos event created in collaboration with Mexican artists. “That will include a conference strand, a programme of live art for the brave and the curious, and free family activities all around the subject of death,” Harrison explains. “It’s going to be like a three-day wake for The Grief Series – and then maybe afterwards I’ll sleep.”
And how will Harrison feel about finally moving on from the subject of death? “I definitely think I’m going to grieve The Grief Series when it’s done,” she says. There’s a pause. “But there might also be a tiny bit of relief.”
You can see parts of Ellie Harrison’s Grief Series throughout May 2017, in locations including Leeds (9-11th May), Bradford and Brighton Festival (18-21st May). Full details here.