Lived Lives Project
Official Statistics tell us that suicide is the biggest killer of young Irish men and women in Ireland, far exceeding road deaths. Hidden behind the statistics lie the personal, untold stories of the lived lives of loved ones who have died by suicide. When someone dies by suicide, the person becomes de-humanised and the lived life is reduced to a statistic.The deceased quickly becomes defined by the manner of their death, changing from person to object. The reality of their life and the memory of the person they were are eclipsed by the manner of their death. To challenge this, Lived Lives seeks to re-humanise the suicide-deceased by going behind the cold, clinical statistics and making the individual visible, through collaborative, truthful, sensitive, and safe representation of the lived life lost and the experience of those they left. This action restored identity to the deceased and foregrounded the lived life as opposed to the manner of their death.
Lived Lives is a durational social engaged art practice which emerges from an on going collaborative interdisciplinary research platform established in 2006 between artist Dr. Seamus McGuinness, GMIT Galway, Professor Kevin Malone, School of Medicine & Medical Science, UCD Dublin and many others. The process involved working closely with forty-two Irish suicide-bereaved families (107 individuals) from 22 counties around Ireland who donated stories, images and objects associated with the lived life of a loved one lost to suicide. The donated material became a working or ‘living’ archive. Many families chose to donate stories, clothing and controversially images and names, which revealed the identity of their deceased loved one, thus challenging the codes of confidentiality and anonymity as laid down by The Ethics and Medical Research Committee and to which Lived Lives had to adhere.
From these McGuinness created a series of art installations including, 21g, Archive Rooms and The Lost Portrait Gallery. Placing the families within the process, they became the first audience to see the emerging art works at Galway "09. Importantly at these engagements the families had the right to withdraw any of their donations from the exhibitions. With express permission given by the donating families, a mediated public exhibition was co-produced and co-curated with artist, scientist, families and communities, creating a series of site specific public conversations and interactive art installations nationally and internationally. These collective actions create new methods of production, new sites for difficult conversations and new ways to ethically and responsibly transpose these private experiences of human loss into the public domain.
The practice can move people towards an empathic position, creating the circumstance to understand, reflect upon and question the loss of young Irish lives to suicide.The aesthetic experience of Lived Lives has the quality of ritual or relic, but its primary quality is the manner in which it is communicative to diverse audiences. It continues to unfold. The practice is not informed by asking what artworks are, but rather with the question of what the artworks can do in society.
The raw material for the physical artworks was materials belongings of the suicide deceased donated to the process by their families. By investigating this tangible research, applying visual art methodologies and processes and listening to the contributing reflections and conversations, the materialising practice began to emerge. The making process was woven through the conversations with many people. Conversation between disciplines; with the Doctoral study panel; with the Ethics Committee; with families in their own homes and in the Ennistymon ’09, Galway ’09 engagements and a wide range of public audiences. From these extended conversations explorative works in video, photography, cloth and paper were developed in the studio environment. A combination of material, text, sound and silence were employed.
This work consists of 107 signed Consent Forms, each containing the signature of a research participant. Lived Lives operated in a Medical School, developing side by side with a scientific inquiry: all the research participants gave verbal and signed permission, following the principle of informed consent, which is a mandatory process for any scientific study involving human participants in SVUH/UCD. Informed Consent is a text document based work consisting of all the consent forms that the families had signed at the time of interview. By signing this document the families “allow” the individual behind the clinical statistics to emerge. By doing so they are waiving their right and that of their deceased family member to confidentiality and anonymity.
21g consists of white male shirt collars, in various numbers according to content and site. Each collar weighing on average 21g, the mythical decline in body weight at the precise moment of death. Each single fragment represents a young life who died by suicide. They are suspended in a space occupying the “absent body” at various heights. Each collar is sculpted to suggest human form, individually moulded, refusing to conform to a uniform shape and each had its own individuality. It is an abstract representation of young Irish suicidal death and it continues in its various iterations according to context and site, to be a social and cultural probe. It is an artwork that works in society.
Participating families were invited to donate anything associated with the lived life, to the Lived Lives Archive. Many families chose to donate stories, clothing and, controversially, images and names which revealed the identity of their deceased loved one, thus challenging the codes of confidentiality and anonymity as laid down by The Ethics and Medical Research Committee and to which Lived Lives had to adhere. The donated material became a working or “living” archive i.e. “works, which are open ended, unfinished and unfinishable” .These rooms will manifest in different forms and contexts, but will always be drawn from the donated objects. These rooms are also presented as works in progress, they are not presented as “finished” works.
Lost Portrait Gallery
The Lost Portrait Gallery consists of thirty-nine jacquard portraits of the young suicide deceased, installed in a room at exactly the height of the individual, in age order, youngest to oldest. The audience had to adjust their ‘normal’ viewing positions in order to encounter the work. The ability of cloth to speak to and move people became visible as they moved through the room and instinctively touched the work.
From Anonymity to Identity
The screening involved a three-minute film of the weaving process for the 39 grayscale portraits of the suicide deceased, with the peculiar mechanical sound emanating from the loom, a juxtaposition of sound and image, each individual portrait film being three minutes in duration. It begins with images of the jacquard loom in operation — the reeds on the digital looms, the shuttle moving back and forth, in real time. The first name and age of the deceased begins to appear, as the shuttle spindles back and forth bringing the face of the person into existence, overlaid with segments of family narrative and eventually fading away into a black screen.
From Anonymity to Identity
This work calls on the materiality of cloth and borrows its name from Peter Stallybrass. The images were produced by using a micro lens, documenting all signs of the lived experience from all the clothing donated to the Lived Lives Archive. The camera seeks out the details: tears, stains, frayed edges, and unravelled stitches. It explores the materiality of cloth and humans.