As exhibition titles go, Dead isn’t the most alluring I’ve come across. Devoid of irony (this is a display of funeral artefacts), it does at least have the virtue of saying what it means. Together with freelance curator AndrÃ©e Cooke, Welfare State International invited 19 artists, fashion and product designers to create something functional and celebratory that could be used in a real ceremony.
WSI is a company of artists and designers, based in Cumbria, whose aim is to create an alternative culture in which “more people will actively participate and gain the power to celebrate moments that are wonderful and significant in their lives, be this building their own houses, naming their children, announcing partnerships, or burying their dead.”
It seems particularly pro-active on the funeral front, having published a user-friendly guide to DIY funerals, The Dead Good Funerals Book, and holding regular weekend workshops where those of an enterprising disposition can learn how to turn a funeral into a “meaningful celebration” of someone’s life, rather than a painful exercise in crisis management.
The main thrust of WSI’s argument is that it’s high time we dumped the drab Victorian funeral rituals of black garb, plain wooden coffins, grim-faced processions and granite memorials. Why not celebrate the passing of a life, like the Irish, rather than wallow in gloom?
One of the interesting things that emerges from Dead is the personal reactions of the contributors to what must have been a most unusual brief. Stumped for inspiration, the Austrian artist Peter Friedl turned to his ten-year-old son for an idea. “A duck,” suggested the boy, so Friedl created a large whicker duck in which to dispatch a dead child.
George Shaw worked in a morgue before he became an artist, which must have had some bearing on the two hand-painted, foetal coffins. Ex-punk singer turned visual artist Linder Sterling has written a requiem for herself, while fashion designer Jessica Ogden was inspired by a personal bereavement to create a small pillow, hand-embroidered out of antique fabric.
There is a boat-shaped coffin by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, a diamantÃ© shroud by Owen Gasker, a personalised biodegradable body bag by Inventory, an egg-shaped sarcophagus by artist Gavin Turk, and an exquisite decorated urn made out of black glass, made by the UK-based Dutch product designer Tord Boontje.
In selecting the contributors to Dead, curator Cooke wanted a cross-section of cultural, spiritual and religious backgrounds, although interestingly none of the exhibits reflects any overtly religious sentiments.
Cooke herself lived with someone who was dying of cancer for three years. “In western culture, we look at death as something to fear. What WSI is offering is a way of coping with that scenario in a much more communal and realistic way.
“The whole notion of facing up to the reality of someone’s death can only be positive and progressive,” she adds.
There is obviously much to be said for re-thinking the pious, Victorian-style funeral in our increasingly secular society, but at the same time a lot of people still derive comfort from the formalities of a religious service when they’re feeling emotionally drained.
Dead: An End to Conveyer Belt Funerals is at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1, until March 10, 12am-8pm. Further information about WSI can be found on www.welfare-state.org