Reykjavik

Helga Hansdóttir and Magnús Pálsson, Dialogues on Death, 2003–11, furniture, rugs, clothes, radios, CDs, headphones, sound, video record-ings. Installation view.

Helga Hansdóttir and Magnús Pálsson, Dialogues on Death, 2003–11, furniture, rugs, clothes, radios, CDs, headphones, sound, video record-ings. Installation view.

Helga Hansdóttir and Magnús Pálsson

National Gallery of Iceland

Helga Hansdóttir and Magnús Pálsson, Dialogues on Death, 2003–11, furniture, rugs, clothes, radios, CDs, headphones, sound, video record-ings. Installation view.

In 2008, Dr. Helga Hansdóttir and Dr. Sigríður Halldórsdóttir published a research paper titled “Dialogues on Death: A Phenomenological Study on Views of the Elderly Toward Life and Death and End-of-Life Treatments” in the medical journal Open Longevity Science. The two geriatricians sought to document attitudes of the elderly toward life, death, and the kind of end-of-life treatment they preferred, in order to better understand how they had arrived at their beliefs. They carried out dialogues with men and women age seventy-two to ninety-one, and, in brief, discovered a common acceptance among their interlocutors that at their age, death was a natural part of life; and a consensus that, if in illness and without hope of a meaningful recovery, no extraordinary measures should be taken to prolong their lives.

These interviews, while clinically significant, were also persuasive and enlightening, each a personal appeal to preserve the dignity of life near death. Hansdóttir, believing that there were broad lessons to be taken from these testimonies—which seemed to summarize the research she had been doing for years—sought out the Icelandic artist Magnús Pálsson to collaborate with her in exploring this material, and the result is the installation Dialogues on Death, 2003–11. In a darkened room, a ventilator chart appears projected on one wall accompanied by the sound of a patient’s struggling breath, while exactly opposite, an echocardiogram of a young woman in love sounds with a fiercely rhythmic heartbeat. This counterpoint between life and death frames mise-en-scènes created in seven islands of light, where vintage furniture of Scandinavian design is set on worn carpets. Some of these settings are dramatic, partly traversing angled walls; one hangs from the ceiling, thus setting the stage for a world beyond the habitual; most include outdated radios, but all have headphones extending an invitation to sit and listen to the voices of experience.

Hansdóttir and Pálsson did not use the original recordings from Hansdóttir’s research; actors read the testaments (all in Icelandic) interpreting them through voices reasoned, reflective, and poignant. Asked about their experiences with death, the respondents rarely gave direct answers but instead told stories. For example: “I think I have been lucky. I was very young when I first encountered death. . . . I lost my brother, he froze to death when I was 12. . . . I learned a great deal from his death once I started processing it, but sorrow was in my soul and my body for a long time. I lost a child who had a heart defect, which was very difficult for me . . . but I also learned to appreciate how wonderful it is when healthy children are born, which is the biggest miracle of all. So in this way I realize how lucky I’ve been. Otherwise, I might have taken everything for granted.”

Dialogues on Death is a rare example of disciplines with extremely low alignment—medicine and art—successfully creating a hybrid expression. Intertwining medical with artistic research allows each to be visible through the other. Using an interdisciplinary platform, the resulting work delivers content that can only be described as genuine. “I fear living too long,” one person states. “I worked in a nursing home. . . . I just don’t want to go through that, to experience such helplessness, not being aware and only to breathe.”

Ronald Jones