Ellie Harrison All That Lives | ‘Usually what we mean when we talk about death is love…’ (Photos: Lizzie Coombes)
Artist ELLIE HARRISON brings Mexico’s Day of the Dead to Leeds International Festival. She talks to LISA GRABOWSKI about why we need to talk more about death.
Death was in the air. The April sun had disappeared, replaced by a sharp, wintry chill that drilled into my bones.
Everything seemed tuned in to death, even the middle-aged couple on the table next to me chatted about the family burial plot they had just purchased at the cemetery.
“It’s becoming less of a taboo. There’s a really great death positive movement going on at the moment.”
This is Ellie Harrison, creator of the Grief Series – a seven-part project at Leeds International Festival which engages audiences with themes of grief and loss.
Brightly clothed and cheerful, she doesn’t strike me as someone who has spent the last decade talking about death. The frustration that birthed the project consumed her life, she says. “I didn’t think we were good enough at talking about it, even though it’s something everyone’s going to experience at one point or another.”
“I mean, none of us is getting out of here alive.” Humour around the taboo topic is a key element in the Series’ success which started as a solo show, Etiquette of Grief, in which Ellie suggested a guide to dealing with loss.
“I thought ‘Who’s going to want to see a female autobiographical solo show about death?’ Fortunately, people did!” Those people engaged with her after the show to share their own stories which encouraged Ellie to realise there was a need to create space for talking about death.
The Grief Series has taken many forms, each centred around a different element of a seven-stage grief cycle. Drawing on photographs, guidance books and even a funfair, Ellie has collaborated internationally with artists, sign writers and funeral directors.
In fact she has engaged with people from all walks of life. The current project, All That Lives, is a collaboration with artists from Mexico’s El Faro de Oriente, renowned for their spectacular Day of the Dead installations.
“Mexican culture has a really unique way of discussing death and integrating it into our everyday lives, so it isn’t so invisible. And they do it with such warmth and colour and openness.”
Ellie has a vision – an ‘art baby’ merging of cultures, the UK finding new ways to express grief. But she’s also very conscious of cultural appropriation – so much so that El Faro teasingly made her a certificate ‘formally’ granting her permission to use Day of the Dead culture in her work.
“The first time we visited, they said ‘It’s great that you’re here. Everyone’s talking about us, but no-one’s talking to us’.” All That Lives puts the Mexican artists at its heart. Working with the public, they will build ofrendas (colourful shrines that Ellie describes as being ‘like Christmas trees’) in disused shop units in Bradford and Leeds.
People are invited to bring offerings, help with the build, chat to the team or raise a glass of Mezcal at The Feast – a one-off event which is part of Leeds International Festival.
“We’re a friendly bunch. Come in. Have a cuppa! There’s no right or wrong way to engage,” reassures Ellie, encouraging people who may be put off by the topic. “If we talk about sex, we don’t get pregnant. If we talk about death, it doesn’t mean it’s going to come any quicker.”
Now in its final stage, The Grief Series has been an intense and joyful process, she says. “People often say ‘Isn’t it quite depressing talking about death?’ but actually what you’re talking about more often than not is love. People are telling you about people they love. And that is incredibly hopeful.”
Interview with Ellie Harrison by Richard Horsman.