Picturing Death

Hell scene

How do you picture death? Evading any imagery of an actual corpse, Edith Bergfors and Matthew Holroyd's the death book draws on western tropes and representations – from digitally manipulated bodies to woodland thickets, grainy snapshots of late-night ravers and landscapes pulled from Google Earth – and asks probing questions about mortality, power, sex and technology.

To the book’s creators, media portrayals have created an interesting dichotomy through which the grieving process can be both distorted and eased, and is explored through photography sourced by themselves or via contributions from friends and artists. In the following conversation, the collaborative duo reminisces over early encounters with death and reflect on how it shaped their unwonted vision.

Miron Zownir, 1983. NYC, courtesy of the artist.

Matthew Holroyd: One of the running themes in the death book was how we learned about death through visual culture – TV, art, the press – and how, through that, death becomes a simulation. What was your first experience of it? Was there a celebrity death or a TV programme that you really identified with?

Edith Bergfors: I was never that fascinated with the idea of celebrity death itself. But I remember as a child, I’d have sleepovers with my friends and we would watch horror films, like Bride of Chucky and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The majority of the time was spent under the duvet, hiding from the thing we were watching. I think it brought about some excitement and enticement despite us not visually experiencing it, but the drama of it was somehow relevant to that experience.

MH: I think my first experience [of death] was probably through the television series Dynasty, there were a lot of dramatic death scenes. One scene in particular that I always remember was the Spanish wedding massacre where the entire cast was shot dead. It was a final scene of one of the seasons, but the next season they all came back to life because it was actually just a dream. Death was in pretty much every season. Crystal was in a coma and died. Alexis Carrington was shot when she became a politician. It was always presented with drama and macabre, but at the same time it was slightly humorous.

EB: I remember those kinds of programmes, like 90210 for example, when somebody might die or they'd be in a coma for a long time. They'd always come back to life because the reality of having somebody die was that the character was being written off the show, which was a bit too much for those sorts of daytime audiences. The return was essentially their return to the show.

"death was always presented with drama and macabre, but at the same time it was slightly humorous"

MH: Another, for me, was the death of Princess Diana. My parents always speak about JFK because they were obviously alive and they remember what they were doing when he was shot. I remember what I was doing when Diana died. We’d gone back to a friend's party after a gig and a couple of hours later someone called in and said ‘Oh my God I just heard that Princess Diana has died.’ Our reaction wasn’t sadness. Even though she was a really remarkable woman, in many ways her death was exciting. Unpacking that now, it was quite a learning experience. We were incredibly unsympathetic and I think that's because I hadn't experienced death at that stage in my life. My experience of it was through shows like Dynasty or Neighbours or Home and Away. Diana’s death was just another climax to a narrative.

EB: I think there's a similarity there to how people experience death now through the ways people communicate on social media. When a celebrity death occurs it's almost a competition of who can post The Knowledge of their death first. It seems like there's a prestige in being the first person to post a picture of that celebrity and say ‘RIP’. To have that spectacle around it creates the same sort of excitement and togetherness simultaneously, but you're not in any way related to it.

MH: It's interesting that you talked about horror films and the kinds of narratives that contain them. The climax to those stories usually involves a massacre or a killing. They are based on a serial killer who is generally a man and the victim is generally a sexy-before-she-should female character. I don’t really watch horror films now but I watched them a lot as a teenager. We were learning these things from a very early age, information about roles and ideas about how we should behave. The sexy-before-she-should character is massacred in the film, whereas the overtly hyper-masculine character is the hero.

EB: I see that as an over simulation of gender and sexuality, which is a thing that we reference in the death book quite a lot. The idea that death doesn't exist as a reality because nobody actually knows what it is, and the idea that gender and sexuality aren't concrete things, but mechanisms of control. That's just another way that they're played out in those films.

Edith Bergfors

Matthew Holroyd

MH: Yeah, because we have no relation to celebrities – at least I don’t have the pleasure or the circle to meet them. So when there is a celebrity death such as that of Amy Winehouse, my experience of her is through the media and her betrayal. It's a narrative created by the media – some of it based on fact, and some of it not – and it feels quite fictional. She’s like a part in a film. Her death was just the end of a plotline.

EB: I remember the death of Alexander or Lee McQueen. We were at my house in Hackney Wick and we were delving into what had happened, was it drugs or was it suicide? There was a friend of his who was there and he was saying, ‘His name is Lee McQueen, not Alexander McQueen’. That’s the difference between knowing somebody personally and knowing somebody as a celebrity. For him it was very personal. He was mourning it as it happened and was trying to have a nice evening and distract himself from the reality of it. But the drama of it was unfolding at the same time. It was very symbolic of the private and public aspects of death, and how that affects the way we deal with it.

One of the things that you and I have always had in common is an obsession with television, specifically reality TV. There's this programme we used to watch where a spiritual healer meets a celebrity. The healer comes across very disinterested with celebrity culture and pretends not to know anything about the celebrities he meets. He turns up at their door and sits with them, touches their grandfather's watch, maybe a piece of jewellery or a necktie and tells them they should feel at peace with how so-and-so died. Everybody is always so surprised about how the spiritual reader knows so much. Nobody clocks that those celebrities have pretty much all of their lives written about publicly.

MH: Have you ever visited a spiritualist or had your tarot read?

EB: My stepmom is a neurologist and she reads tarot. One of the first times that I had it read I asked about my relationship status. She pulled out the past, the present and the future, and the future card was a very skinny looking man rising up from his bed with loads of spears in his bag. Coincidentally I split up with my boyfriend a week later.

MH: I remember going to a psychic supper when I was about 16. A friend and I paid 10 pounds to sit around a table with a psychic. We had sausage rolls and cheese sticks with pineapple. We were really excited. But early on we realised that the psychic was a bit of a fraud. We began messing around and asking questions about a problematic friend of ours, which was very mean. The psychic told us that she was going to die really young. And so, the next day at school we told her that we'd been to a psychic and if she continued being problematic then she was going to die. She burst into tears. Obviously, she's still alive and really successful! But our reaction to hearing our friend was potentially going to die was rather emotionless, in fact we were quite excited by the whole idea. That was totally influenced by the films and the soap shows we were watching.

EB: I mean, if you'd gone to a doctor with her and she'd been diagnosed with something that gave her a few weeks left to live you wouldn't have had the same reaction.

MH: Of course – we would have been extremely upset. But within the context of this particular psychic medium, it was clear that it was fiction.

EB: Another thing that we were talking about, especially with the making of our posthumous videos – which are accessible via QR codes in the book – was that we were both potentially cursed by the making of the book. Both of us had various things happen to us, which felt like a curse, and that little by little one of us would die. The videos were a humorous spin on the idea of believing in such a thing as a curse, which I don't think that either of us really subscribes to. I guess it’s similar to when a catastrophic event occurs and people who aren’t religious start to pray because it’s the last resort.

MH: We’ve talked about criticising dramas and soap shows, and how an experience with death can be informed by visual culture, but I do think these experiences can be beneficial. Humour can really help. Having experienced the death of someone close to me who died very slowly, I found that we both wanted to find humorous elements along the way. This of course depends on the context and person; a young or unexpected death might cause trauma and shock and would result in a very different bereavement process. I can’t even begin to imagine such a situation, it would be extremely difficult.

EB: One of the things that got you and I talking in the first place – back when my mum was dying, which you were there for a lot of – was that when you watch somebody die over a sustained period of time, it actually gets boring. It’s something that nobody really talks about. I’m not speaking for everybody of course, but for me, I had this very dramatic understanding that she was going, little by little I dealt with it, but after a while I got bored.

MH: I remember you saying that when we went to the death cafe, which is a cafe where people who are experiencing death, are in mourning, or are dying themselves, can go and talk about their experiences. You told a similar story of how by the end of that period you got quite bored and one of the members of the group criticised you and said you were selfish. She was a woman who had never experienced death herself but who came every week to the cafe to talk about it because she was so afraid of her own death. I found it incredible that she would accuse you of that whilst simultaneously being so obsessed with her own.

EB: It was a little bit offensive that she could not accept me talking honestly about my situation. Personally I'm not that bothered with my own death. When I die I won't be here anymore.

MH: I’ve thought about my own death quite a lot. I want it to be a fun, camp event, a bit like an episode of Dynasty with dramatic music. I would like those who attend it to have fun.

EB: I’ve never really gone into the planning of my own funeral. It's for the people around me to do what they think is best. So there we are! We end with our own funerals!

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