Galen Riley reviews Steven Eastwood’s multi-channel installation
Steven Eastwood’s seven-screen video installation was initially commissioned by Fabrica as part of their five-year programme Into That Good Night which aims to bring notions of death and dying to the fore. Eastwood’s commission was also the genesis for his ninety-minute feature film Island, recently screened at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam in 2018, and the BFI Film Festival in London in 2017. This review will focus on the multi-channel installation.
‘The interval’ refers to the duration following a terminal diagnosis and ‘the instant’ is the moment of dying. The work begins; a Wight Linke ferry emerges from a luminous misty dawn; seagull on the jetty, ship horn, blood drips, a tame owl visits the hospice living room, a physiotherapeutic balloon exercise.
Still of the pier from Island (2017), Steven Eastwood, director, (footage shared with the installation)
Fabrica is situated in the former Holy Trinity Church, an appropriate place for a funeral or an artist’s work on the subject of death, it suits this culturally regulated process. The title piece The Interval and The Instant, a fifty-minute four-channel loop, appears in the main gallery – the nave. This dominant section is a panoramic triptych, simultaneously screening the end-of-life of three adults; Alan Hardy, Jamie Gunnell and Roy Howard (Island also includes Mary Chessell). Each screen is more or less associated with one individual but we soon realise the narrative is shared. It charts their progress from home, to hospice and beyond. A satellite projection of an owl appears occasionally and enegmatically on the wooden pulpit at right angles to the main triptych. This is an unexpected surprise, comical and yet calming. The harbinger of death joins us for the viewing, a wide-eyed sentinel.
Liz Whitehead, Director of Fabrica, found Eastwood’s proposal the ‘most challenging ethically’ of those submitted, because of his intention to film the very moment of death, as well as events around this intimate moment. How to reasonably gain permissions for this without crossing a line into voyeurism, or provoking sensationalist or exploitative accusations? Into That Good Night clearly wants to intimately engage with this Western cultural taboo, but how far into this subject can it be reasonable for a publically funded art space to go?
In the entrance corridor, the aisle, still visible behind us, opposite the triptych, we see The Planets, a small circular projection loop of many slide-ready biopsies of cancerous cells. These microscopic originals are so enlarged and colour enhanced that they become at the same time cosmological and geographical. They are the pretty cause of death in all these cases; Alan, Jamie, Roy and Mary all had terminal cancer. We see similar samples mechanically prepared within the triptych.
Microscope image of a biopsy from Island (2017), Steven Eastwood, director, (footage shared with the installation)
Regarding death and particularly its portrayal in video documentary, Eastwood states,
We still repress this eventuality, in western culture at least, and so death and dying remains partitioned, not widely shared, shown or talked about. And because of this, death is one of the least accessible and malleable subjects for art and film. Strange, given how ubiquitous a subject for art death was in the past.
I wanted to be witness to the moment of death, because I felt that this was taboo in our society, certainly taboo if the image didn’t originate from a familial relationship, like a partner or a sibling filming a loved one. I wanted to ask, why is that taboo, given that death happens every day and, contrary to our estimations, is an innately natural event?1
When Bill Viola filmed his mother dying in The Passing (1991) something is forgiven and allowed because it is his mother, he made the choice to film her during his grief. She is in a coma with no visible conscious presence. There seems less licence given to the viewer to view because of this lack of her agreement than in Eastwood’s work where non-familial camaraderie is shown to develop. Viola’s work also engages with the format of the ‘triptych’ when The Passing becomes part of the Nantes Triptych (1992), which was also temporarily installed in an ecclesiastical setting (the seventeenth-century Chapel Musee des Beaux Arts in Nantes). Eastwood demonstrates a complete immersion in his film practice, befriending his subjects and allowing their steering of the process. Although visceral, the overall sense of Eastwood’s work is not shocking or sensational, as is Viola’s Nantes Triptych, but rather earnest and touching.
News media (and now social media) has a fixation on accidental death and violent death, but when foreseeable death, occurring as a result of illness is represented in non-fiction terms, its image insists upon ethical justification. The viewer must be assured of their right to see and know, because a visual taboo has been violated, and typically, it is an invitation extended to the film-maker by the subject that gives the viewer permission to witness.2
Eastwood’s original consultation was with medical consultant Dr Jonathan Martin, Consultant in Palliative Care, University College London Hospitals. He developed the project with St Joseph’s Hospice Hackney, St Christopher’s Hospice Sydenham and Martlets Hospice Hove. Shortly after Eastwood secured funding for the project Nigel Hartley of St Christopher’s became CEO at the Earl Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight. Within a month Hartley got his team together in a meeting with Eastwood and made it clear that he wanted to give him as much access as possible. As Hartley later states,
When people come to the end of their life we give them an opportunity to create memories. This film has been a really useful opportunity for those involved to leave something of themselves behind.3
Eastwood’s method and intent clearly resonate with the aims of this hospice. The community team and Macmillan nurses were fully engaged with the project and would let patients know an artist-film-maker was there, hoping to film service users at the hospice. Only those who expressed an interest would meet him. Their first encounter with Eastwood would be without the camera, to establish rapport, explain the project and hopefully gain a robust consent. Eastwood filmed at the Earl Mountbatten Hospice for twelve months between June 2015 and July 2016.
The main thing I’ve taken away from working on this project over a number of years is how palliative care is quite a radical space and it’s a hidden community that delivers extraordinary care and I think allows a person to be whatever they want and whoever they want at the end of their life.4
The location of the hospice on the Isle of Wight was fortuitous, introducing a background of seagulls, seascapes and the poignant arrival and departure of the Wight Linke ferries. The island emphasises the process of death as a place apart, and we are reminded of Charon, the ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology, who ferries the souls of the recently deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. We meet a local choir rehearsing Brahms’s requiem, and rescue owls visit the hospice in a therapeutic capacity. A cyclical rhythm develops, from light to dark, the routines of staff, morning to night shift, paper work and palliative planning, biological phasing, the punctuation of smoking, and ultimately – just the breath, mouth agape.
Alan Hardy, from Island (2017), Steven Eastwood, director
A nurse lights a cigarette for Alan. He has fully embraced the notion of his death. He is eighty-two and his wife died not so long ago. He expects to see her again and seems excited to contemplate this. We hear him musing on time in detail as something ungraspable. Despite this, at some puzzled moment he still wants to know what time it is.
Time is a peculiar thing. It is just a way of chopping up, a period, so that we know where we are and when we are. It’s a very useful thing to be able to say I’ll make sure its three o’clock tomorrow afternoon and since we both know when three o’clock tomorrow afternoon is, we’ll be at the same place.
On the other hand, there is no time but the now. It’s the eternal now. It’s the only thing that exists. Because as I say tomorrow afternoon, three o’clock, when we meet, it won’t be tomorrow at three o’clock, it will be now. You always live in the eternal now, it’s the only place you can live. You can’t live in five minutes time or five minutes ago.
You can think about them and make plans and stuff like that, yeah, fair enough. But you can only live in that moment at that moment, and then that moment has moved.5
Roy is in his seventies with a living partner. At the point he is assessed as having one week to live Eastwood makes the decision to briefly leave the Island and Roy dies the next day. Eastwood realises that wanting to be witness to a death is not enough. There is not really any choice in these matters. Roy’s funeral appears early on in the triptych.
Jamie is forty with a young family and everyone around him is in shock about his illness. We see a fund-raising party and raffle where they make more than seven hundred pounds. On the night of this event we see the damaged, red and sore hand of Jamie. He is engaged with the event but becomes visibly tired and is in deep pain at some moments. Eastwood talks about the tension between being privately ‘under’ or ‘over’ cautious when filming Jamie. To stand back too much would be a disservice to Jamie and his offer of consent, but Eastwood finds it is easy to feel as though he has over-stepped his permissions around this less timely death, ‘Nobody wanted him to die. The film became a safe space for reflection and directly addressing what he was facing, away from that love and that pressure.’6
Jamie Gunnell embracing a friend, still from Island (2017), Steven Eastwood, director
Alan invited Eastwood to be with him when he died, and after he had died. To allow this Eastwood had to be named as the next of kin on Alan’s medical notes. One Day the End of a Life was projected in a smaller room at Fabrica, the part of the aisle furthest from the entrance and behind the main screen. This space is a little more private than the rest of the gallery. It shows, in real time, the last five hours of Alan’s life, and ‘the instant’ of his death. It is all about the face, the breath, mouth agape, a black hole, troping the infinity to which he is headed. After thirty-six hours of sitting with and continuously filming Alan on his deathbed, Eastwood falls asleep from exhaustion, and again misses the moment of death – but this time the camera captures it. He then traces some of the practical procedures following a death, the filling out of legal paper work, cleansing and dressing the corpse into a charmingly casual yellow sports shirt.
This encounter taught Eastwood how beautiful a good death could be, a gentle running out of life, of breath, or at least a series of gasps, increasingly interspersed with silence, and how unclear to our perceptions, or to the medical world, the exact ‘instant’ is. Julia Knight, the nurse who wakes Eastwood upon Alan’s death, calls to him, ‘Steven? Steven? Alan’s gone. You might get another breath. You might get another breath love.’
Chapel of Rest is a fourteen-minute silent video shown on a small and horizontally positioned monitor against the wall opposite and in the same quiet room as One Day the End of a Life. This is an intimate viewing, we look down on Alan, dead in his casket; a close up of his face, his bloody lip, his torso and head are framed, his wrist tag ironically inscribed ‘DOB’ (date of birth), a close shot of his hands where they look more like skin sacks than flesh. We see his head adjusted to allow the coffin lid to be locked down, the absolute end.
In Chapel of Rest it is initially unclear whether we are watching stills or a durational film. The only action is the unseen decay. It makes some sense that the final images of death are often stills, as in the polite end of Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan Super Masochist, where Shiree’s photographic sequence provides the visual evidence of Bob’s demise.7 The absolute stillness of the now inanimate Alan is emphasised by the persistence of the take and we remain engaged by the work when nothing else can happen beyond the dispatch of the body. Eastwood has made Alan and his death very close and familiar to us. This is an ordinary moment. Eastwood concludes, ‘We tend to think that death is somehow exceptional and different but its absolutely everyday.’
Steven Eastwood, 'the interval and the instant', Fabrica, Brighton’s Centre for Contemporary Art, 7 October – 26 November 2017; Blackwood Gallery, Contemporary Art Centre, University of Toronto Mississauga campus, Ontario, Canada, 12 February – 11 March 2018. Island (produced and distributed by Hakawati) will be released in the United Kingdom on 14 September 2018.
Steven Eastwood is an artist-film-maker and Reader in Film Practice in the Department of Film Studies at Queen Mary University London where he oversees doctoral film practice and the Masters programme in Documentary film. Eastwood’s work is often concerned with ethics, belief, mental health and physical disability. Eastwood has screened and exhibited internationally. His first feature, Buried Land, was officially selected for Tribeca, Moscow and Mumbai Film Festivals in 2010. His documentary, Those Who Are Jesus, was nominated for a Grierson Award in 2001.
Galen Riley is an artist and experimental art space host at the SIX SECOND Gallery, Dalston, London which opened with the group exhibition ‘Artificial Paradise: A Study of Intoxication’ (2016). The forthcoming exhibition engages with reinterpretations of themes (science and death) contained within An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby (1768), curated by Alice Evans, 22 March – 1 April 2018. Riley will also be participating in Space Shift curated by Sarah Kogan, APT, London 18 October – 4 November 2018.
1 Steven Eastwood, The Interval and the Instant, Fabrica Gallery, background information (Fabrica 2017)
2 Eastwood, Moving Image Review & Art Journal, vol 5, no 1–2, p 32
3 Nigel Hartley, BBC News, 7 October 2017, ‘Film Charts the End of Life at Isle of Wight Hospice’, Hampshire & Isle of Wight
4 Eastwood, YouTube, Fabrica Gallery, Interviews with Steven Eastwood and Liz Whitehead (Director of Fabrica), director and editor Tom Thistlethwaite, 9 October 2017
5 Alan Hardy (hospice service user), The Interval and the Instant, Steven Eastwood, 2017
6 Eastwood, Island, Director’s Statement, 2017
7 Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan Super Masochist (1997), Kirby Dick, director. The film is a documentary about Los Angeles writer, poet, performance artist, comic, and BDSM celebrity Flanagan, who suffered, and later died from, cystic fibrosis. The film premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded a Special Jury Prize.