This interview is part of The Legacy Project: explorations into creating legacy projects for end of life, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship Award.
Claudia Biçen is a self-taught artist who is fascinated by the human condition. She has a degree in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Oxford and a masters in Social Anthropology from the University of London. These combined interests inform Claudia's work and lend a unique perspective to the beautiful imagery she creates.
Her latest project 'Thoughts in Passing' is the result of a two year exploration into a question Claudia has been transfixed by since being a small child: how should we live? In order to find answers to this, Claudia contacted local hospices in the Bay Area of San Francisco and interviewed, recorded and drew nine people who were close to the end of their lives. The resulting project is a tender portrayal of nine individuals who talk about their joys, regrets, life lessons and worries as they approach death. Their words are transcribed onto their clothing as well as heard over their portraits in three minute recordings. Such is the impact of this work, one of Claudia's portraits, 'Jenny Miller' is now showing at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC from March 2016 until June 2017.
PRN Magazine interviewed Claudia to find out more about the process of creating the portraits and how working with the dying helped her to think about living.
Click on the images to enlarge. All images courtesy of the artist.
PRN: How did this project come about and was it fully formed in your mind before you set out, or did it evolve as you met people over time?
CB: Since I was a child I have always been fixated on the questions of what makes life meaningful and what we should do with the time that we have. Through my teen years and twenties I explored answers to these questions by studying philosophy, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and the world’s spiritual traditions. I met with all kinds of people with different belief systems and backgrounds both in my local community and far away in other countries. Two years ago when I decided that to seek guidance from people who were dying, it felt like a very natural next step in my journey. In fact, it felt strange to have not had a conversation with someone who was dying. Here is this universal experience that defines so much of how we interact with the world, and yet direct confrontation with it had been almost absent from my life.
All I knew is that I wanted to have these conversations with people and that I would use my artwork as a vehicle with which to share them. I didn’t know exactly how I would do this when I started out, but I knew that I would draw people’s portraits and interview them about their reflections on life and confrontations with mortality.
PRN: Had you explored death and dying in your work before this project?
CB: Death and dying is a fundamental characteristic of the world we are a part of. Everything is constantly emerging and passing. Of course, for the individual, the most definitive of these is their own death, but this is just one kind of emerging and passing.
Thoughts in Passing actually grew out of a smaller series I completed at Project 387 artist residency in Gualala, Northern California. Over a two-week period I met with six people connected to the property including both owners and workers. After interviewing them about their relationship to the land, I selected areas throughout the forest to create their portraits on tree stumps. The final chalk pastel portraits were left untreated and vulnerable to the elements to allow for a natural process of decay. This series, located on a mile-long loop on the far reaches of the property, created an intentional pilgrimage for viewers to contemplate the transience of all things. Like Thoughts in Passing, this work aimed to address the relationship human beings have to attachment and change by asking viewers to confront the inherent degradation and emptiness of all phenomena.
PRN: What was your thinking behind choosing graphite rather than colour for the portraits?
CB: Prior to this project I had only worked in colour but I decided to use graphite pencil because it felt softer and more solemn.
PRN: How has this project changed your thinking about mortality, if at all?
There are two key things that this project has taught me. The first is around the idea of what constitutes a meaningful life. My subjects taught me that we create meaning in our lives by being creative. All the people I spoke to were concerned with what they created and the ways in which they had participated in the world – be that through their children and family, working in their community, connecting with nature or creating ideas and objects. What was interesting is that none of my subjects talked about the stuff they accumulated and consumed – the money they had made, the status they achieved. If you think about it, creation and consumption are the exact opposites of each other: consumption means to “to use up/destroy” and creation means to “bring something into existence”. I found this to be deeply troubling in a place and time where consumption and one’s ability to consume are held as the highest cultural values.
When I went into this project, I naively thought that all people on their deathbed would attain some kind of wisdom and revelation, but I did not find that. And that was difficult - to give up on this ideal that by the time we reach the end we will have figured it all out. This project taught me that life is not about progress – there is no linear trajectory towards some ideal state. The person we are today is the only person we will ever be. We die as ourselves. I learnt that that best chance we have for freedom is to confront ourselves, know ourselves and through a lot of work, we might even learn to love and accept ourselves.
PRN: How did you choose your subjects?
I contacted ten hospices across the Bay Area, California, and word was put out to social workers, nurses and chaplains that I was looking for patients to participate in an art project about confronting mortality. Initially, I decided that I would accept anyone for the project who wanted to take part, but as time went on I realised I needed to turn some people away in order to maintain space for diversity. There were also a number of people I tried to work with who died too soon, and there were others I met but who were not open to talking about the fact they were dying. It was very important for this project that above all else, my subjects were willing to confront the fact that they were dying and were able and willing to talk about this.
PRN: Did the people you drew and recorded find the process cathartic? What were their reactions to the finished project?
CB: Yes, I believe they did. The feedback I received from all of my subjects was very positive. I think that in our culture we shut away people who are dying because they are considered no longer able to contribute to society. This project turned that idea on its head because my subjects were creating this project with me right up until they died. During a period typically defined by loss, the act of creation was certainly cathartic.
I recently held an exhibition at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California, and one of my subjects, Judith, was able to visit with her friends and family. They sat in front of her portrait and listened to the audio for a long time. Every time I saw her after that she was beaming with joy.
PRN: Do you think it’s important to leave a legacy - whatever form that may take, and regardless of the ‘success’ of your life?
CB: Absolutely. I often think about how incredible it would be to have a collection of letters and audio recordings from all the generations in my family going back in time. What challenges would we share as human beings and what would our differences be? What could they teach me about life that I am still struggling to learn? It seems so simple to do this, but it requires great foresight and an acceptance that you are but one piece in a long string of people through time. I’m currently 16 years into a project whereby I write to my future self once a year about what I have learned. I hope to be able to pass this work down to my children one day.
PRN: What has been the reaction to this project and why do you think it has been such a success?
CB: The most common response to this work has been that people have felt moved. For me, this is what makes the work a success. My intention was to make art that was able to move people from the concerns of their daily life to a confrontation with the total absurdity, impermanence and beauty of life. It is not everyday that you get to hear the final words of people who are on their deathbed and they are a powerful and visceral reminder to stop and smell the roses.
PRN: What is next for you?
CB: I have a couple of projects I’m dreaming up right now but I have started them yet because I still have a lot to do with Thoughts in Passing. Though the research and creation phases are complete, the outreach phase is only just starting. I am planning exhibitions, workshops and presentations around the project in both the US and the UK. These have been and will be in communal spaces, hospitals/hospices, schools, universities and religious spaces.
This interview is part of The Legacy Project - an exploration into creating legacies at end of life.
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