Coming to terms with the fact that I am now middle-aged, I have decided to reflect on ageism by revisiting my own personal relationship to ageing and death. As I am ageing, it becomes necessary to ultimately find ways to demystify the social “fear of our future selves” (Nelson, 2005) becoming invisible and provide narratives of inclusiveness and visibility through my work.
Personal and contemplative relationships to embodied death and profound sorrow motivated the creation of this triptych as well as the desire to show how life keeps on happening long after the body has become a corpse. I had hoped to create moments of desolate beauty where the visual complexity of decaying bodies would trigger solemn emotions, kinship, and resonate with my current concerns regarding entropy.
Channeled through visits to flea markets, antique malls, and auction houses, hopes of reigniting past feelings would arise and make sense of current ideas. I touched, felt, and smelled objects that awaited their revelation. A similar quest led me to visit ossuaries in Spain and catacombs in Paris. All in death appeared bountiful and excessive, pushing boundaries of the expected and inflicting visual narratives of morbid abundance, captivating, yet profoundly disturbing. Comparable to rococo aesthetics, decaying organic matter seemed accreted to the point of being nullified. Nonetheless, this overload of visual information, this excess of stimuli, did end up bestowing a powerful sense of swarming vitality to an otherwise grim tableau.
On a journey back to my hometown in Quebec, I visited nursing homes where the brutal urine stench, the austerity of the sanitized medicalised rooms, and the parked wheelchairs in the hallways hosting incapacitated bodies and overlooked identities, participated in recreating significant and powerful phenomenological memories of recent experiences. All along, I attempted to articulate overwhelming feelings of unease and profound revolt related to fear, disbelief, grief, and disgust. I remember having growing concerns about my own value as an ageing woman, as I witnessed my relatives lose their social relevancy and value because of their incapacity to make productive and useful contributions to a society that values performance, and be progressively relegated to oblivion. I felt compelled, yet again, to find ways to resist and transgress misconceptions of a person’s loss of agency, unwilling to conform; it called forth outrage. Instinctively, I felt that persistent stereotyping and blatant cruelty confined ageing bodies to the margins of society and excluded them from cultural and social discourse.
I wandered once more through flea markets, antique malls, and auction houses, struggling with painful emotions while searching for release. During one of my promenades, I stumbled upon a 1920’s pie safe (that was also used as a medical instrument sterilizer) and was instinctively attracted to its form, and metaphorical potential; I sensed I had found Conservo’s pivotal piece.
From then on, I knew I wanted to create family portraits of both my parents and me and found objects that most effectively represented and recalled my mother’s and father’s late health struggles, hence the bed pan and the urinal, as well as my own frays with the degenerative state of my own ageing body, ergo the pie safe and reversed spinal cord.
Unequivocally, ageing is a reality we all experience regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class. It has been my experience that, as we get older, we all become somewhat non gendered and undefined, deeply rooted in our corporeality, universal in our mortality. Researching what constitutes end-of-life abjection, “[this] absence of self-consciousness, of self-control, of corporeal ownership” (Hughes 2009), through the metaphorical power of art, assuredly prompts fear and concern, but might be pivotal to challenging misconceptions of ageing bodies.
As an art enthusiast, I experienced first-hand the push-and-pull power of the abject as a visual form, its potential to catalyze fascination but also relate to destabilizing feelings induced by fear of intimacy, and/or contamination, in situations of pain and suffering. Indubitably, my assemblages were destined to evoke the horror and repulsion sparked by the institutionalized health care system, but strangely enough, they ended up also irradiating the touching beauty and profound marvel I experienced while witnessing my parents accepting their ontological fate with serenity. The use of the rococo genre, ornate, decorative, and excessive, also contrasted the darkness of the visual proposition by offering respite through comforting and re-conciliating sentiments grounded in wonderment and contemplation.
This earlier work deals with remembrance and its relationship to personal histories, identity in the cultural space, and the body as a memorial site. This work, as well as others, “point out to memories [they are] continuously recreated events, based on the past [hence nostalgic], but understood through the present.” (Caines, 2004).