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Material legacies and storytelling in grief

Exhibition pieces from Material Legacies: Clay sculptures, felt mushrooms and printing

Our memories of a person are a mosaic, made up of many different things. It might be a gift they gave to us, a particular smell that reminds you of them, a collection of their favourite books, and even digital legacies, like a recording of their voice. When that person dies, these objects take on new significance. How can they be used to tell the story of what they meant to us?

Stacey Pitsillides, a lecturer in design at the University of Greenwich in London, has helped bereaved people tell these stories in her new exhibition, Material Legacies. In collaboration with the Hospice of St. Francis in Berkhamsted, she spent two years working with three bereaved people, helping them explore and create exhibition pieces that tell the story of their loved ones. The result is three unique narratives; stories of love and loss told through the objects and installations they have created.

“It is about narrating the dead in a new way, creating that biography through the things and the data that they had,” says Stacey.

It’s a six-year journey that led Stacey to proudly open Material Legacies last month. She had been studying digital death for her PhD in design, exploring how new digital spaces, such as Facebook, Instagram and other social media, are being used to mourn and memorialise those who have died. Her research led her to the Hospice of St. Francis, where she was able to explore how we understand the people we love through the objects they leave behind, both physical and digital.

‘Lark Ascending’, one of the pieces in the exhibition, was co-created with Anna, telling the story of her husband, Tim.

Whereas many people may think of the internet as separate from ‘normal life’, Stacey suggests that digital and physical objects of remembrance are equally important and can be just as much a part of the story we tell about people who have died.

“That was my interest in this project,” she says, “Seeing a floppy disk and the content on that floppy disk, or someone’s voice captured on a Dictaphone, in the same way as we see a physical object like a book, or a mushroom in the forest.”

In this way, each of the three pieces in the Material Legacies showcase incorporate physical and digital objects as materials to help the bereaved tell the story of their loved one. ‘Above And Below’, created by a lady called Freda, uses clay sculptures and digitally projected images to play with light and colour, to create a unique biography of her late husband, Victor.

‘Above And Below’ combines clay sculptures and projected images to tell Victor’s story.

Stacey explains the story behind another of the exhibition’s pieces, entitled ‘Chaz Was ‘Ere’, inspired by the grief of a teenage friend’s death. The installation consists of multi-coloured felt mushrooms, real moss, and various sound recordings. It’s a story that mingles physical, sensory experiences and digital data.

“Sam and Charly were at boarding school together and they used to go to the forest to smoke,” explains Stacey. “Charly used to get really excited whenever she saw a mushroom.

“It tells the story of how they grew apart as they went into different universities. Charly died, and Sam got a notification of this friend’s death through social media. She told people via Facebook that they should wear colour at the funeral.”

For the piece, Sam crafted around 30 or 40 mushrooms through a process called dry felting, to create a series of about 15 clumps of colourful fungi.

“She talks about this very visceral experience of needle felting, where she pricks the material until it goes from something soft to something hard,” says Stacey. “It’s a process of repetition, which she describes as bringing memory into matter.”

The real moss on the mushrooms gives an evocative smell of forests, telling the story of Sam and Charly’s friendship.

“It’s this notion of making as a way of exploring, quite viscerally, what that person meant to you. She also talks about the fact that when you make them, you hold them at your chest, because you’re holding them close to prick the needle in. It’s like you’re nurturing them into existence.”

Alongside these lovingly-created mushrooms is a recording of Charly’s voice.

“They had a Dictaphone which they would put by the washing machine and Charly used to leave her messages all the time,” Stacey explains. “We’ve taken some of those messages and some of those in-jokes, little things that she said to her.

“The art installation also takes into account other environmental sounds that constituted that space for them, such as the flush of a toilet, the cars going by, also the sound of the actual dry felting.

“So we’re trying to let the viewer walk into an experience where the mushrooms open themselves up to you, both through their position in the room, through the sound installations, through the smell of the mushrooms – because the moss actually smells of the forest – and through the documentary where Sam is explaining what the mushrooms mean to her.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to work with these people,” Stacey says. “We worked over a period of two years together and we developed very close relationships and bonds.

“Ethically it was a very interesting challenge to mediate what it means to give people a voice in that space. It allowed them the opportunity to show a very curated artefact or work that expresses who the person was that they loved. For me, that links a bit to the way that celebrants work with people’s narratives to design a funeral that narrates who that person was. There’s a connection there.”

Material Legacies is on display at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London, until March 25.

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