“Their suffering seems to go on and on…” So reads the spiralling text inscribed on the inside of a fine porcelain tea cup. The tea cup sits incongruously on the floor and one can almost hear the voice of an elderly woman discussing, over a cup of tea, the torment of someone gravely ill.
Nearby, a pair of men’s Sunday-best shoes, coupled with an old photo of a young man upon which is scribbled “I have the right”, creates an eerie presence. A set of black rosary beads rest upon another old, faded photo; this time of a mother and child. The words “I feel so guilty” are printed across it.
These intriguing and thought-provoking items form part of David Beaumont’s latest body of work Eu thanatos, at the Geelong Gallery. ‘Eu thanatos’ means a desire for a good or easy death, and in this exhibition Beaumont explores different aspects of the euthanasia debate.
In a radical departure from his painterly, abstracted seascapes for which he is best known, Beaumont has used found objects, photos and text to examine an emotionally loaded subject. Although this installation is vastly different to his customary oil paintings, what underscores both approaches is Beaumont’s interest in ambiguity and liminality. Like the murky waters and shifting sands of his paintings, euthanasia inhabits a shadowy landscape, open to interpretation.
Beaumont knew from the beginning that he wouldn’t be making paintings about this subject. “One of the difficulties, for any artist, is finding a way to say what you want to say. I’ve been painting for a number of years now and I was feeling a bit stuck. I was looking for another way to express this issue.”
Using antiquated, domestic objects and historical photos of individuals in their heyday, with the addition of emotive and at times provocative text, Beaumont suggests some of the difficulties and dilemmas encountered at the ‘end of life’.
The genesis of this exhibition occurred four years ago when Beaumont was in New York. Sitting in Central Park on a cold, bleak day, he noticed an old woman in a wheelchair, frail and arthritic, hunched in a black shawl and blanket. She appeared close to death yet as the sun broke through the clouds, suddenly the old woman thrust her head back, threw open her shawl and immersed herself in the sunshine.
“It was a visual experience that really sat with me,” says Beaumont. “It was as if she was trying to suck as much of that sun, that life, into what little remaining time she had left. It triggered off a whole lot of thoughts and feelings about death and dying, aging and quality of life.”
Spurred by that unexpected encounter, Beaumont began to investigate how people deal with terminal illness and declining quality of life. He talked to medical and legal professionals, religious leaders, palliative care staff and families dealing with terminal illness.
“It raised more questions for me than I could answer. What are the rights of people who experience loss of dignity and quality of life? What happens when a loved one is in advanced stages of dementia? What about those with terminal illness? What is their right? Do they have the right to end their life? What would we do if our loved ones became terminally ill?”
He found language an interesting starting point for his explorations. From strident phrases to gentle euphemisms, the terminology used to describe euthanasia depends on one’s perception of the issue. On an old battered door he found at the tip, Beaumont has written the following terms: gentle landing, assisted suicide, terminal sedation, death with dignity, medicalised killing, a good death, slippery slope to legalised murder, physician assisted dying, principle of double effect. The door is a powerful metaphor for notions of exiting, crossing and entering, for standing on the threshold, at the proverbial ‘death’s door’. As with all the works in this exhibition, there are many possible layers of meaning.
When asked about the symbolism in his work, Beaumont is reluctant to give too much away. “I don’t want to fill in the dots. I want people to come to their own conclusions and think about their own position on the issue.”
On the other side of the room, a hand crafted cross-stitch has been carefully embroidered with the statement “It’s my decision”. On the back the text reads “diagnosis dementia”. Here Beaumont raises the vexed issue of diminished decision making. What are the rights of someone with severe dementia who is not capable of making a rational decision? The problems of dementia add more questions to an already complex debate.
A crucifix hangs on the wall diagonally opposite the teacup on the floor. Scrawled in red paint across the bottom of the cross are the words of the sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. The words seem to thunder through the air. Most Christian religions view euthanasia as a violation of divine law and dictate that only God has the right to take life away.
In the spatial relationship between the crucifix and the teacup, Beaumont references the psychological struggle faced by devout Catholics who have a strict belief in the sanctity of life but who feel deep compassion for loved ones who are terminally ill and suffering great pain.
“I was trying to make some sense of where conservative religions were coming from with their strong push for sanctity of life,” says Beaumont. “I wanted to juxtapose that utmost reverence for sanctity of life with the human suffering you see.”
Currently the laws in Australia regard the intentional hastening of death as a serious crime even when intolerable suffering from illness is involved. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Australians want to legalise euthanasia (3 out of 4 Australians according to a recent Auspoll survey), the law still stands. The legislation is framed in such a way that although the medical profession can expedite a quick and easy death, individuals who are suffering terrible pain cannot choose to die, and the medical profession cannot help them to without breaking the law.
The Australian Human Rights Commission acknowledges that it is difficult to reconcile the competing values of the desire of the individual to die with dignity when suffering, with the need to uphold the inherent right to life of every person. The right to life is recognised by article 6.1 of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) which states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
In Eu thanatos, Beaumont grapples with the tensions between personal rights, current legislation and religious beliefs, and firmly places the debate in the public arena. He highlights not only the difficult passage faced by individuals near the end of life but also that of family and friends. His works entice us to delve deeper and think about where we stand on the issue.
“I wanted to be respectful,” says Beaumont. “As an artist, when you start poking around the issue of death and religion, well… they are fairly tender issues. I didn’t want to be overly sensational. I wanted the work to be accessible in a very human sense. That’s important because people start to travel on their own journey with their own ideas and feelings about looking at something.”
At first glance, the installation appears unassuming, understated even, with a homely nanna aesthetic. Yet combined with the texts, it has a strong emotional resonance and stays with the viewer long after leaving the gallery. This seemingly gentle exhibition is all the more powerful for its restraint.
Eu thanatos is on until Monday 14 March, Geelong Gallery, Lt Malop St, Geelong. www.geelonggallery.org.au
UPDATE: You can view a video of the exhibition made by the CEO of Dying with Dignity, Neil Francis.
Dying with Dignity is an education, “self-help” and law reform organisation pursuing public policies and laws in the state of Victoria that enhance self-determination and dignity at the end of life.