Before you die ___________?
It's a surprisingly powerful question to ask; what do you want to do before you die? Death is a catalyst, an undeniable perspective changer.
Candy Chang is a multidisciplinary artist that engages in thought-provoking large scale public art projects. With Before I Die, Chang harnesses the hold of mortality to invite her viewers and participants that stumble upon her simple chalkboard installations to contemplate the most pertinent question of all The answers range from "bucket-list" items to chankalpa-like life resolutions and personal calling declarations. Some are desires, others are determinations reminiscent of fortune cookie scripts and others still are revelations. Before I die I want to own a pig farm. Before I die I'll be successful in business. Before I die I will go to Europe. Before I die I want to help others discover what they want to do before they die.* That last one is mine. Stumbling upon Chang's Before I Die installation in Philadelphia was one of the defining moments that helped me put into words what my life's goals are. Like Chang, I want to use personal loss and death as a focusing lens for my own goals and those of others. I don't think I need to argue here that mortality is humanity's greatest driver to achieve, accomplish, discover, grow. Yet it is so easy for us to get lost in the minutiae of the everyday and forget what are lives our about, and more importantly what we want them to be about. Before I Die functions as an affirmative memento mori- a reminder of death with a provocation to aspire and be inspired. Its effectiveness is marked by the numbers; over 1000 cities all over the world in over 70 countries boast a wall installation of their own filled with entries by countless unsolicited participants. Not surprisingly, the project itself is born out of death. Candy created its first incarnation in 2011, on the wall of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood, as a response to losing someone she loved.
About a month ago, I heard Candy in conversation with poet CA Conrad on the ideas of art and ritual. Chang is currently in Philadelphia engaged in an ambitious public mural project funded by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Porch Light Program and entitled "The Atlas of Tomorrow". The mural, scheduled to be unveiled in May 2016 aims to be "a device for philosophical reflection that includes 64 fable-like guides to help people contemplate their lives and destigmatize discussion around mental health" inspired by the I-Ching. The concept of the work naturally evokes dicussion on the ritualistic habits of artists, both planned and unconscious and how creative ritual actions can be used for healing. Conversation flowed naturally between the two artists, Conrad's presence and ideas complementing Chang's. Rendering of "Atlas of Tomorrow" mural by Candy Chang with The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts' Porch Light Program) Conrad writes:
"Creative people are survivors. And rituals can lead us to seeing the creative viability in everything around us."
His words ring true, but should not be dismissed as obvious. It is hard to be creative in the face of tragedy, but it is an invaluable coping and processing strategy. Pouring unexpressable pain into words, of language or of art, is sometimes the only way forward, especially in a time when public rituals of mourning are absent. "I want to create a space to get back to the big questions about life, death, grief and sorrow," Chang says.
Swoon. “A Slender Thread” Hand carved human skull, Book, Paper Cut Outs, Pill Bottle. (photo courtesy © Museum of Curiosity)
Conversations with Candy: Candy Chang and SWOON on Art and Trauma
27 April 2016, 07:30 PM - 09:00 PM
The University of the Arts, Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium, Gershman Hall 401 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA
Attendance is free and open to the public.