The Art of Living

The Art of Living is a film about grief. It is based on experiences narrated to me from 28 women of all ages who have used a creative act to enrich their lives. Some related how that creativity allowed them to survive and continue to live a meaningful life, how the creative act allowed movement or a metamorphosis from a place of absolute loss to a place of brutal continuing, softened by vivid memory and vague hope. There are two films, made over a year,
intended as a collective external and internal experience of grief.

NARRATIVES of Grief & Bereavement

Grief is a journey and multi-faceted. The art of living is to accept that all is transitory and that grief is our starkest reminder. While grief turns the mundanity of life into monochrome, memory and fantasy is vivid and insistent, and although details, of events or of faces, fade, the memory of the feeling remains, and returns in saturated colour to haunt again and again. Grief was described to me as a macabre puppet master, or alien being, or a omnipotent consciousness, or a tsunami, while the grief-struck felt as a tiny insect, enslaved to loss.

Narratives described fantasies of after-life heavens, recriminations against a cruel god, understanding of a bleakness of life, the determination to remember and to continue and to survive with a deeper understanding of life’s meaning and of our connection to others that enriches that meaning. Narratives almost always described how death metamorphosed into something other than loss, either in fantasy or in real life changes.

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Symbolism of the Dragonfly

A great deal of symbolism was used in the narratives I collected. The forest, metamorphosis, significant objects, walking and water stood out in the stories I was told.

The film uses the symbolism of metamorphosis: the dragonfly, large on the screen, becomes the puppet-master, the traveller through the forest, twitchy head rubbing balancing on a twig, nasty and alien and beautiful. There are three stages of the dragonfly life cycle, the egg, the nymph, and the adult dragonfly. Most of the life cycle of a dragonfly is lived out in the nymph stage, sometimes for years, the nymph lives under the water and out of sight. The time spent as a dragonfly is brief and busy, since it is as a dragonfly that new life is created. Grief was often described as a journey. The start of which feels like living under water, eventual survival feels like breaking out of a shell and becoming something else, something larger and something scarred but stronger, strong enough to hold on to the memories but to let go of the loss.

All the Art of Living lies…

While the intention behind these films is to create a sense of grief, the narrative of the process of grief is also reflected. “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on”, is a quote attributed to Havelock Ellis. The two films attempt to represent this letting go and then holding on. The woman depicted in black and white is clearly distressed in an undramatic, profound way. The sort of unhappiness that makes living a burden. She sits on the floor with her coffee cup, answers her phone, slumps down and holds the doll the little girl used to play with. She is very real this woman. She is holding on to her memories but also walks away from them, letting go…

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The Healing and Restorative Power of the Forest

The strongest image within these films, used because of the repeated reference in the collected narratives, is that of the forest at Autumn and at Spring. These two times of the year represent a great upsurging of life and the opposite, a dying and a preparing for winter. Again the idea of “holding on” and “letting go” comes to mind as the forest becomes a living symbol.

The healing art of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, originated in Japan, where the healing power of forest bathing is recognised as such a crucial part of mental and physical health that it was implemented as a part of that country’s public health program in 1982. Forest bathing is the restorative practice of simply spending time in nature, specifically in a forested area. Studies have shown improved focus and productivity, greater creative inspiration, increased happiness, and greater immunity, all while fostering physical wellness.

The forest in the colour film, made human by a woman and her family of little innocents, embrace the intense and vivid life in the trees, wild garlic, bluebells, waterways, moss and insects. But isn’t the doll in the bluebell dress the same as the one held by the despairing but determined woman in the black and white film? Then we fly through the forest from the dragonfly eyes point of view, there is a creeping sense of menace and possibly we begin to wonder if the forest is healing or manipulating and we wonder if the women in the black and white film, who walked with such determination into the forest, into her fantasy of her safe and happy child, is safe there.

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Overlaying and Multi-layers

At times the films display many layers of images. Grief is a multi-layered experience where ideas and feelings are distorted, disjointed and unsettling. Things that were small before are larger than life after. The journey through bereavement has moments of utter clarity, that crash into kaleidoscopic confusion. Both films end with the same shot, a fallen tree, decaying over the year of the shoot. Even when the footsteps end, and the personal journey pauses, the life cycle of our environment continues, ever changing, ever repeating, reminding us of our transience.

Sounds and Music

Within the narratives I collected references were made to the physicality of the heart. Those bereaved were strangely aware of their own heart rates. Narratives described the plodding of the heart as though nothing was wrong. The normal sameness feeling wrong. The heart was also described as having erratic beats, akin to panic attacks, at the sudden remembering of the loss of a loved one. I collaborated with Sean Davis, composer and DJ, to create the euphoric house music (known for its attention to natural heart rates) from this reference to the heart. The melody attempts to depict the beauty of memory, the sudden remembering of the loss, ending with a menacing musical panic attack. The soundtrack has elements of cliche and speaks to the cliches surrounding death, the rituals and the images that are part of our culture, that are common for us all, intended to bring us comfort, but regularly only compounding a sense of disconnection.

The trudging footsteps also speak of a heart rate, unchanging even in the face of deep pain. Footsteps also reference walking, a journey, a journey through the process of grief.

The soundtracks attempt to describe the process of grief, its journey between extreme points of reference, its mundanity, its endlessness, the emptiness, the beautiful intense memories, the humour and fun at the darkest times, the loneliness, the loss, the fear.

Installation

The films are placed back to back hanging against two sides of the same wall, so the films play in adjoining spaces. The films should be installed so that they are connected but that they can not be seen simultaneously. The black and white film is a simple narrative of a women surviving immeasurable grief but played against the colour film, both including imagery of the dragonfly, the doll and forest at opposing seasons, this simple narrative becomes filled with questions of what might have been in the woman’s mind, and if her final walk into the forest is positive or not.