"Beware of Tuesdays. And Octobers." - Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
What do you do on the anniversary of The Worst Tuesday ever? The 21st October 2014, to be precise; the third Tuesday in October – which is often the worst. In this case it wasn't a bout of depression that earned that date the crown as The Worst Tuesday Ever (TWTE). What do you do on the anniversary of the day you found the week-old corpse of a loved one?
I would advise: be with your living loved ones, do nothing you'd bother to mark on a calendar - stroll, drink coffee, hold hands, watch a comforting show, eat cake, cuddle, laugh, cry if you want. Of course, I didn't do any of that because I'm only wise when I think someone's reading.
I got on a train to London, by myself, to see an exhibition on death. I'm writing a book about death festivals around the world, so it's a pretty ordinary thing for me to be doing, but it felt chilling to be doing it on the anniversary of the day I stared into his fridge, trying to make sense of there being a corpse upstairs instead of my father-in-law – a man who who walked around naked in the kitchen until my husband explained you really can't do that now a girl has moved in; a man who only bought wine he knew I liked, even if he didn't; a man who told me with a straight face that the Telegraph was neutral. I'd love to claim I'm over The Worst Tuesday Ever, but it's tricky given that my entire working life has become a shrine to it. I'd better hurry up and write the book so I can do something else with my October Tuesdays.
Life. Death. Whatever. East London's very own death festival in Sutton House, Hackney.
The title "Life. Death. Whatever" suggests death may not be at the forefront of the event, but it is. Perhaps they needed to soften the blow for a culture where death has replaced sex as the number one topic to avoid in polite conversation. "You're going to die" is up there with some of the rudest catch-all suggestions one can pluck out of the air – but at this exhibition, it is suggested.
The first room guests enter (after getting past the friendly National Trust gatekeeper) is the Linenfold Parlour. The wall is entirely panelled with the original Tudor wood, carved to look like draped cloth. It gives the room a darkness that's quite fitting for what you find: as you go through the door, you see the back of three figures draped in shaggy strips of fabric. At first you can't see what they're crowding around, so you edge around them. Like a slow, awful realisation, you find five people crowding around another, lying on the floor. One of them is bending down – since you can't see the face it's hard to tell if the scene is one of confusion, the figure bending down and saying, "Steve, wake up", or if they're standing in shock and sadness, with one of them doubled over with grief. I stared for about 10 minutes and changed my mind as many times.
I circled down the stairs to the cellar. I probably should have been apprehensive that the sculpture down there was called "Like Flies to Flesh" – and sure enough I felt slightly faint at the sight of this:
I checked the exhibition notes, which confirmed that I was looking at an artist's rendition of strung-up carcasses bleeding on the floor, with paper butterflies flitting around them like flies drawn to rotting meat. I had a flashback to the conversations after TWTE, in which people asked us, "Did you know right away that he was dead?" It had been eight days. If you left a raw chicken on a bed for eight days, no one would ask, "Did you know immediately that it had gone off?" But with a human body, a fleshy sack for who we all are, we don't make the connection with its propensity for decay, that it will eventually be something that needs to be disposed of, a disgusting sack of meat and fluids that is suddenly of interest to scavenging creatures.
What's so incredible about "Like Flies to Flesh" is how difficult it is to stay stuck on one perception – for a moment the butterflies look beautiful, fluttering around the scene. Then when you notice them gathering on the wounds of the carcasses like a mass of maggots, disgust kicks in again; then, stepping back, the beauty of the scene washes over once again. It's confusing, exhausting, incredible.
I climb the stairs to the Gallery, which has been renamed The Coffin Playroom. It looks like this:
There's a school playground outside and I could hear children shouting and playing as I stared at the three coffins. People had written on one of them in chalk, and a sign invites you to "Take a coffin selfie!" I was alone so couldn't get one of myself lying in a coffin (aw, dang, I could have had a picture that makes me confront my mortality and eventual decay – OH WELL) so I went with this:
I also took a four-second video to picture whenever the idea of death makes me sad.
The Unsaid exhibition is one of the most memorable. The organisers have left a basket of postcards on strings, and guests can write anything "unsaid" on them and string them up on the staircase. There are some astonishing messages, confessions and quotes.
I wrote two. One to my father-in-law, and another to my friend who killed himself in 2007. I can't quite bring myself to post them here for some reason ("oh, NOW you have a modicum of privacy, after dragging us all through the details of TWTE!").
This is in no way an exhaustive post about the LDW exhibition – there is plenty more to see, including a replica of an 80s squat upstairs, and outside there are various installations centres around vehicles, including a double-height caravan decked out like a stately home. There are comic strips, music pieces, installations of so many kinds. I just detailed the ones that made me laugh, cry and want to throw up – in a "what an excellent piece of art" way, of course.
So do go along.
By the way, if anyone visits and sees the postcard that just says, "You're a fucking asshole" – that wasn't mine.