Last night I attended a lovely photography exhibition that got me thinking not only about what it’s like to confront death, but also about what kind of life I want to live right now – at this exact moment in time.
The exhibition, “Right, Before I Die” was at an amazing venue, the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The artist, Andrew George, photographed portraits of men and women shortly before they died. He interviewed each one, uncovering their deepest personal thoughts regarding their past, present, and future. Each photograph was printed in life-size format and mounted above selected paragraphs taken from the interview.
While the photos were intensely real and intimate, it was the connection to the person’s thoughts that drew the observer in. It gave me insight into each one’s personality and all the places one’s mind can go when death looms close.
“I’m at peace and have been for a few years. You just have to decide that no one can hurt you anymore and you just go from there. You run to the end of the diving board and jump off, into the black void, and hope you land in water -“
“The last time you close the lid of a casket, that is the most heart-rendering thing you can do. You break, you just break. I have three children buried in Phoenix and four husbands dead.”
It was an incredible location to soak in death’s profound moments. The exhibition was mounted along the north aisle of the main area of the cathedral — what a feeling to view art in that dark cavernous space lit by tall stained glass windows! It created a forced perspective, both visually and mentally.
What was very unexpected was that the majority of the exhibition attendees were conservatively dressed and visibly wealthy. As I patiently waited to ask the exhibition coordinator and then the artist some questions, I never managed to get out more than half a sentence before I was put on hold for someone more “important” than me. Although the space dwarfed me, the experience of being dismissed in this way (presumably because I didn’t “fit in” with the crowd) made me feel even more insignificant.
As uncomfortable as this was for me, I found the experience incredibly enlightening in juxtaposition to a show summing up life just before death. It allowed me to see clearly (as sharply focused as the photographs) what was most important to me in my life. As I fled the cathedral, I had a strong sense of certainty — of knowing that the life I am living, surrounded by the people that matter most to me, is, indeed, the life I want to live. What a wonderful gift from those souls who opened their dying hearts for the sake of art.
“I feel like the door is opening: we go back when we’re done with the job that we were put here to do – it’s so simple, because it would be such a hoax if it weren’t true.”
“Everything that you hold dear, everything that you hold important, everything that keeps you together can disappear in a second unless there’s a lot more strength in the way that it’s being held together.”
At the end of the exhibition there was a mirror… placed there by the artist so those passing by could see (or ignore) a reflection of themselves. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I wondered, “In this age of selfies, does being comfortable with your own reflection spell vanity or acceptance of one’s self?” I could not help but notice how few of the attendees stopped to look in the mirror or even noticed that it was there.
In the end, the exhibition had more to offer me than the artist’s specific intent. The whole evening gave me new perspective and an opportunity to reevaluate my life — a worthwhile experience, indeed.