An elderly man sits in his chair, reflecting on life and experience. “Time is a peculiar thing,” he muses. “There is no time but the now, it’s the only thing that exists.” For artist Steven Eastwoood, whose video installation The Interval And The Instant recently premiered at Fabrica, time is indeed a strangely intangible thing.
Playing on a continuous loop in the gallery, this is a film with no precise start and end – and so we instantly find ourselves wondering if this articulate armchair philosopher might be the same man we saw onscreen when we came into the gallery, unrecognisably different, emaciated and breathing his last on a hospital bed. It’s an eerie feeling.
Eastwood’s 45-minute film, which plays on three large screens in the main space at Fabrica, was recorded across 18 months at the Earl Mountbatten Hospice and St Mary’s Hospital, both on the Isle of Wight. It is the last of three commissions from Fabrica which explore end-of-life themes, as part of their ‘Into That Good Night’ programme.
“People with terminal diagnoses and in the end stages of life are largely denied cultural participation and therefore an image,” Eastwood explains. “It is important to give witness to the process of dying, debating what we have and aspire to in terms of wider communities of care and how we as a culture might be better educated in terms of death and dying.”
The video introduces us to three patients, whose progress we follow through palliative care. The screens show, at various points, different aspects of their journey. A scientist in a lab examines biopsy slides through a microscope. Nurses sit in conference, discussing how the patients are doing, and sharing insights into their responses to various frighteningly incomprehensible meds. We glimpse physio sessions where elderly patients bounce balloons on their heads, and see the hospice choir rehearsing a requiem mass.
It’s a strange experience, yet completely absorbing from the very start, elevated by the sheer beauty of so many of the camera shots. A car ferry arriving and departing to the Isle of Wight provides an underpinning visual motif. The notion of death as a journey to another shore resonates in literature – from mythical Avalon, to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”.
Yet it is the patients and their friends and family who truly make this film so moving to watch. (All those concerned consented fully to Eastwood’s involvement.) We were touched most deeply by the story of Jamie, a middle aged man dying of stomach cancer – particularly a scene in which, visited by his male friends, they sit in his hospice room with cans, watching the football. There’s a gentle intimacy at play as these guys share unfussy brotherly camaraderie. “I got finger blasted by a nurse”, Jamie tells them, wincing as he describes the enema he received earlier that day. “It felt like she had a finger like King Kong.” Jamie responds to his situation with patience, resignation, and a dose of humour.
In another scene we find him out at the pub, evidently some kind of fundraiser at which he is the main guest. Here he seems less comfortable, giving a short and bashful speech about how overwhelmed he feels. The camera catches him later in a moment of reverie, his face a study in pain. It’s hard to watch and harder still, in many ways, to see his face change again to a forced smile when a friend approaches. This is the living embodiment of putting on a brave face, surely.
Elderly Alan, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of the film. The scene in which he dies is strong stuff, but undeniably moving. It does not feel intrusive or morbid, since we know this man made the choice to share his final moment with us. There is a calm beauty to it – especially in light of the extraordinary love of the nurses and visitors. He dies peacefully, with a kind person holding his hand.
Would we recommend this exhibition? It’s a personal choice, and your response to it may well vary depending on your circumstances and your feelings about watching someone pass away on a video screen. This is, however, emphatically not a depressing exhibition. It avoids cliche entirely, handles the subject matter with reverence and tact, and pertains as much to life as to death.
Alan, during his armchair musing on time and life, explains his belief that whatever happens to your physical body “the core of you will not be harmed – ever”. His words peek at transcendence while remaining pragmatic and gently understated. It returns us, as all art should, to the vitality and indefatigable essence of life.