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Tuesday 15 March 2011

What happens when we die? Stardust - Some Thoughts on Death at St Mungo's Museum, Glasgow

Review by Alistair Quietsch

The latest show at the St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life, Stardust – Some Thoughts on Death by Gillian Steel, is a curious, almost scientific rumination on death. It took Steel a year to document all her findings, 100 interviews and over 50 recordings of conversations on the topic, pragmatically giving each person 10 questions to answer in regards to death and possible events thereafter.

As the introductory quotation reads: “this exhibition reflects our capacity as human beings for monumental faith, as well as existential insecurity” it foreshadows an exhibition with no overall outcome or resolution, which in regards to the theme, is perfectly fitting. Throughout the show there are DVDs playing the documentation of the Stardust Symposium, an event attended by 50 people from varying religious backgrounds discussing the subject of death, and monologues on research and experiences. A running video piece with selected voiceovers of interviewees in the past seems to be the strongest attraction in the space since it clearly sounds the scope and range of beliefs in regards to the subject, with the disadvantage of having a seemingly last minute video flung together as backdrop. One man, after pondering slightly, simply states: “It probably helps to have that belief; that there is something there,” however there are never any resolutions or consensuses within the soundtrack, as the supporting blurb concedes. The show allows the viewer to experience outside opinions on the subject and leads them to question their beliefs on the theme, since that is all it can be for most of us.

James Anderson, who is discussing the evolution of grief from his experiences in the field of psychology, has a unique video monologue. Much like humans, some apes have been known to visibly grieve so much that they themselves perish from the sorrow, and he anecdotally quotes a story: “concerning a guerrilla who was trained in American Sign Language.” Coco the guerrilla was in discussion with the trainer and they asked, “What happens when guerrillas die?” Coco replied “Trouble. Sleep.” The trainer then asked, “Where do guerrillas go when they die?” to which Coco replied: “Hole in ground. Bye.” It is interesting that there is no metaphysical aspect to Coco’s viewpoint and it calls into question some of our own beliefs in higher beings and spaces between this life and another. Again relating to the quotation in the introduction that the creation of a belief system surrounding death could sometimes be the pacifier for our own anxiety towards our end.

That video leads nicely on to another strong voice in the exhibition: Joseph Cameron with Benjamin “Bodhiprem” Shapiro. It is an interesting document as it tries to illustrate the innocence of youth in light of an older mans perceptions of death (Joseph being 8-years-old talking to a 75-year-old retired grievance councillor working for the Buddhist Hospice Trust.)

Joseph sits; shoelaces untied, dangling his feet from the large chair engulfing him, asking only 5 simple questions, one of which being “What do you feel you need to do with your life before you die?” to which Shapiro just laughs, then replies with an answer regarding focused involvement in the moment. Shapiro’s answer is interesting though not only for his response but for his way of responding. Steel puts his laugh down to giving himself time to think, however, there is a deeper point to his dispelling the worry over death by laughing and abandoning it for enjoyment of the moment. “Unless you know you are going to die, your life would be meaningless.” states Shapiro.

At the end of the show there is a large publication, which is a weighty run-through of the research but the real value of this publication is Steel’s voice within the show. Working mostly as a statistics log, scientifically tallying belief in brackets: 36% believe in life after death, 38% have anxiety towards death and so forth. The publication though is a clear indicator of her obsession with the subject and even tells how her immersion in it became a strain. She makes good observation that there is the lack of any elderly close-to-death points of view and younger voices from children.

However the pay off is the massive collection of completed questionnaires on the subject. Here you can read the confessions of participants, their desires and dreams for the perfect end to the story. It is an interesting recurrence that we want to have friends gathered around us, be outside in the woods or lakes and peacefully close our eyes. However the best reply to: “How, where and when would you like it to end?” was simply a score-through line.

Stardust – Some Thoughts on Death continues until 30 June. For more information please visit the St Mungo Museum website. You can follow the Online Stardust Symposium on Facebook here.

Image: Courtesy of Dorothy Martin Ross/Gillian Steel

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