A Celebration of Death

Festival of Ian Smith, 28th October – 23rd December, 2017 at Edinburgh’s Summerhall is set to be an eclectic mix of art, music, performance and installation – all investigating, challenging, confronting or celebrating death. The festival explores why we often find it difficult to talk about death in our society, and how art and artists can help. Olivia Carr talks to event organiser Angie Dight to find out more about this wonderful event and what inspired setting up a festival in her husband Ian’s memory.

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The festival includes exhibitions of work by Ian Smith, Ross Fraser McLean, Graeme Wilcox and Colin Gray.  Performances over the opening weekend included Ugly Chief by Victoria Melody, Privates by FMIN, Bright Colours Only by Pauline Goldsmith and Immortal by Andrew Tibbles.  There’s also a Day of the Dead party with Our Ladies of Sorrow presented by Nothing Ever Happens Here, a Death Café, and a shrine-making workshop.

Olivia Carr spoke to festival organiser Angie Dight for Death & the Maiden to find out more about the sentiment behind this eclectic event.

Would you be able to tell us a bit about your background?

I am the co-founder of a street theatre company based in Glasgow called Mischief La Bas. We’ve been going for almost 25 years. We’re influenced by European street theatre and a lot of our work involves being outdoors and interacting with the public. I founded Mischief La Bas with my partner and husband Ian Smith. He suffered from clinical depression and committed suicide in 2014. It was then that I started to think a lot about death and it became a subject I had to engage with.

What motivated you to found the upcoming Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death?

When Ian died I had no idea about planning a funeral so I asked Karen, the woman at the funeral home what you need to do, what is a funeral? She said ‘nothing you just do whatever you want’. So from then on we just planned the funeral as a celebration of Ian’s life. Because he had been so ill in the last years of his life he had only really been a shadow of himself, so we wanted the funeral to be a celebration of Ian from before his illness, to sort of bring back the essence of Ian.

Some friends made an amazing coffin painted with an exotic dark blue beach scene, one side night, the other day. There were gold knockers on it and something from a ship on the front of it and feet sticking out at the end. As soon as the coffin came through the door everyone broke into spontaneous applause! We dressed up and celebrated his life with a great party after the burial. The day before we had a Buddhist blessing as well. This all made me realise how important is it to celebrate someone positively and to be open about death.

Can you expand on that?

We’re aware of how other cultures celebrate death in a positive way but in secular western society by and large we don’t. Even though someone’s physical presence has gone the feeling of them and their legacy is still there. I think it’s a real problem that western culture isn’t dealing with death as healthily as it should do. We need to realise that death is a part of life and if we could properly acknowledge this we could relax more and maybe wouldn’t be in such a rush to race through life trying to achieve everything before we die.

Is Festival of Ian Smith: A Celebration of Death an extension of your 2015 exhibition Celebration of Death?

I really wanted to show Ian’s work, so in a sense, the 2015 exhibition became an extension of the funeral. We did a death cabaret and I invited artists and performers to do a piece about death. It was a real mix where everyone had a different take on things. From then the idea moved from being primarily about Ian’s work to being about how we can celebrate death more generally.

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Photographer: Ronnie Heeps

Can you talk us through some of the event highlights?

We’re doing an exhibition called Good Grief where I will make tributes to people that have died and encourage people that visit to also leave tributes. Because this exhibition is running for a month I’m hoping that it will generate quite a lot of interaction.

Another exhibition is an exhibition by a photographer called Ross Fraser McLean who went to Mexico and took a lot of pictures around Day of the Dead. We have another exhibition of work by five people who have friends or relatives who have died recently. Then we have Pauline Goldsmith with an amazing show called Bright Colours Only, which follows an Irish wake. I feel that performance is a really good way of bringing the subject out and showing it in different ways, fun, irreverent or serious. We’re also holding a death café which proved to be so popular that we’re actually holding another one.

What do you hope to achieve with the project?

What I am hoping for is that the project will show death in a positive light and encourage people to talk about death more, particularly young people, and try and help them to see that we should just talk about it more. We can have a laugh about it and make art about it. Death is a ritual which can be enjoyed.

The festival is something that I would like to do again in subsequent years and I’ve already started thinking about how to incorporate things from people who might not be considered regular artists. The question is how can we move it on and still engage people and tell their stories. Overall it’s about engaging people in a conversation that they might not have had if it weren’t for the work featured in the festival.

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