Every Ocean Hughes, ‘One Big Bag’: a Guide to the Good Death

‘One Big Bag’, 2022 (installation view, Studio Voltaire, London). Photo: Francis Ware. Courtesy the artist; Studio Voltaire, London; Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The artist’s immersive film installation at London’s Studio Voltaire is a moving inventory of grief and care

Charon, the mythological ferryman carrying the souls of the newly dead across the river Styx to the underworld, is most often represented as an irascible old man aboard a skiff. But Every Ocean Hughes’s immersive film installation One Big Bag offered me a new face: a charismatic young woman of colour (performed by Lindsay Rico) with a slight squint, whose words and physical presence are at once caring and practical, compassionate and professional – funny and deadly serious. In her 40-minute monologue-performance, she describes herself as a “death doula”: a guide to accompany you and your close ones through the end of your life and beyond, administratively, emotionally and psychologically. A holistic caregiver, if you wish, to compensate for deficient medical and death infrastructures.

“Grief comes through the hands… death has to be understood through the senses, the mind doesn’t get it,” she explains, moving across a room filled with various objects that hang down from ropes just above the floor, Cornelia Parker-style. The floating objects – mirrored in the installation surrounding the film, dangling above visitors’ heads – are all the supplies and props needed for her job, and she uses them to take us through some of the gestures and ceremonies she’ll perform for the persons in her care: from the soap and makeup kit needed for the embalming, to the scents and fabrics to decorate the room in which the family will gather around the body, to the various rituals, real or imagined, to prepare death and accompany the living through their loss.

This inventory is interspersed with moving and cheeky personal anecdotes, philosophical musings on death and grief, as well as cutting observations on the racism and gender-normativity of the healthcare and funeral industries. “Often with these big life events norms are recentred and the biological family becomes relevant again,” she explains about caring for LGBTQI+ people, “unless you’ve done the paperwork.” Staring into the camera now, she exhorts, “Do the paperwork”. For besides helping the living through grief, what this modern-day psychopomp brings to our attention is the possibility of agency in one’s own death, of choosing to be honoured and celebrated on one’s own terms. In times of ubiquitous yet ever-abstract morbidity and collective anxiety, One Big Bag offers a rare moment of poetic, bodily and personal grappling with death.

Every Ocean Hughes, One Big Bag, Studio Voltaire, London, 28 January – 17 April 2022

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