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Claudia Biçen: Thoughts in Passing

30 August 2016

Claudia Biçen, a self-taught British-American artist living in San Francisco, is currently in London to share her latest project Thoughts in Passing, a series of nine audio-visual portraits of hospice patients. We caught up with Claudia to find out more about the project.

Thoughts in Passing is a beautiful collection of nine life-sized graphite pencil portraits. To create these works, artist Claudia Biçen interviewed hospice patients in California about their lives – their reflections, regrets and lessons. Using the text from more than fifty hours of interviews, Claudia transcribed subjects' words onto their clothing in the drawings and created a three-minute audio edit of each person’s interview to accompany their portrait.

Tell us a little about the inspiration for your project Thoughts in Passing?

There were two driving forces behind this project. Firstly, I wanted to create a compassionate and intimate portrayal of that which I believe scares us most.

Secondly, I wanted to see if people who were facing death would be able to give me insight into the question of how we should live our lives.

I could see that the cultural conversation around death and dying was gathering momentum a couple of years ago, but the voices of people who were dying remained largely unheard.

For Thoughts in Passing you interviewed a number of people who knew they were dying. What were your expectations for this experience before you began?

Largely, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I expected to speak with a wide range of people who had had very different lives and consequently, very different experiences of dying. I wanted to understand what those experiences were and what we could all learn from them.

I also expected to find people who were undergoing a process of revelation and reflection as a consequence of facing their mortality. Looking back, I found this to be somewhat true, and often not true at all.

Was the experience how you imagined?

One of the things that stood out most was the ordinariness of the experience. I don’t say that to undermine people’s experiences, but rather to highlight the naturalness of death. Having had very little exposure to death, I think I had attributed to it an almost mythical and terrifying nature.

The project highlighted to me the importance of gently moving towards what scares us, and meeting it with love and compassion. After all, the people I worked with were living people who were also dying, not the other way around.

Did the project turn out how you expected it to when you began work on it? Or did it develop over the years you spent on it?

When I began work on Thoughts in Passing I imagined that I would meet with each subject once or twice, that I would complete the work in about six months and would have a series of drawings as a result.

Very quickly I realised that this was a much, much larger project than that. If I wanted to make powerful work I needed to build relationships with the patients I worked with and we would need to meet over a number of weeks.

Furthermore, I originally just made voice recordings of my subjects so that I could use the transcriptions in the drawings. However, when I listened back to them I knew they had to be incorporated into the project alongside the drawings because they added a whole other level of depth to the work.

What was the most surprising thing you heard while carrying out the interviews?

Several of the people I worked with spoke strangely with regards to time. In one breath they would tell me that they were dying, in the next breath they spoke of how they hoped to experience events that were many years away from now – for example, the marriage of a child or the birth of a grandchild.

One man lamented about the questions he hadn’t had the opportunity to ask when his father was dying; but in the next breath he would say “I hope I have time to ask some of the questions I want to, before it is too late.”

People seemed to simultaneously know they were dying and be in denial of the fact at the same time – even within the same sentence.

What was your favourite comment or answer?

There were so many insightful and profound things that my subjects shared to me that it was very difficult to edit their words down to a few minutes, let alone to choose a favourite comment.

That said, something that Bert said has stayed with me and I draw upon his words regularly: “I’m sick as a dog, I know that, and I try my best to forget that. But the feeling of giving up life now is very hard because it’s too beautiful. I find myself becoming part of that beauty. It’s in me. I don’t believe I’m that important anymore, but I’m part of the whole.”

How have people reacted to the project? Do you think exhibitions like this help to get people talking about death and dying? And is this a good thing?

The response to Thoughts in Passing has been overwhelmingly positive. I have received many messages from people all over the world telling me about the ways in which the different stories touched their lives.

This project was always about trying to use art as a way to get people talking about death and dying: the art was just the vessel for the conversation. I feel very strongly that an acceptance of the transience of all things, including ourselves, is necessary if we are to live deeply fulfilling and meaningful lives. Death is life and life is death – they are one and the same.

The next opportunity to see Thoughts in Passing is at North London Hospice on Thursday 8 September. Thoughts in Passing will also be on show at the 'Life. Death. Whatever.' exhibition at Sutton House in East London throughout October and Claudia will be giving a talk at the opening on 3 October.

This article originally appeared on the UK edition of ehospice

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