Flicking through the programme for the IBT17 Bristol International Festival, 9-12 February 2017 I was very excited when my eyes, scanning down the programme, came to rest upon Woodland; described by the artists, Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead as: “a poetic and visceral work that describes your body’s fade into the leaf litter of the forest floor. This work connects you deeply to your body, and considers the biological and chemical processes that continue long after you are conscious, as you are slowly and gently subsumed by the earth over thousands of years. Woodland is a love poem to the woods and the forest, as bodies merge with the molecular environments that support life.”
As a social anthropologist who has spent the last 9 years immersed in the ‘alternative’ funeral industry and following the cultural practices surrounding the dead, as well as having written a book and PhD thesis on ‘natural burial’, I simply had to go and experience French and Mottershead installation for myself, driven by curiosity as to how they would present and curate decomposition.
Upon arriving at a small tent erected in a pubic park that borders a beautiful Victorian city cemetery I was presented with an iphone, headphones, blanket and camping mat and told to head off into the ‘listening area’ and search for some ground to lie on in order to begin listening to French and Mottershead’s audio artwork, Woodland, via an app on a smartphone and headphones. Given that it was a cold, overcast February day, I was immediately glad of the blanket! I chose my spot in some leaf litter and hoped it was free of dog poo.
It was surprisingly warm under the blanket.
I pressed play and eased myself into the meditative narration of my body’s gradual decomposition over time; a narration that meant I lay there under the trees, among the decomposing leafs, under the flight path of the crows and pigeons for over twenty minutes…
The narration takes the listener through the 5 stages of a human corpse’s decomposition in woodland; a gentle collapse into soil and one’s erasure through the seasons. Poetic and peculiarly restful and calming. The narrator informs you of the multitude of multi-species becomings, which arise from your corpse as host to creatures, spores and plants of the woodland. French and Mottershead’s immersive digital artwork, was also experientially immersive; one felt quite literally pulled into the ground and enveloped by the liveliness of the woodland floor.
A superb piece of art that I hope they are justifiably proud of and leaves me wanting to experience more of the Afterlife they so deftly curate.
Afterlife: Immersive digital art works offering listeners an intimate, visceral and poetic glimpse of their own mortality.