sábado, julio 31, 2010

Death's a test of maturity (levantado de The Vancouver Sun)

Musee des religions du monde in nicolet is showing before-and-after photos of 26 people who died in a hospice in hamburg. Many visitors find the exhibit both fascinating and unsettling

Heiner Schmitz in life and in death. His portrait is part of the exhibit at the Musée des Religions du Monde entitled: Life Before Death.

Heiner Schmitz in life and in death. His portrait is part of the exhibit at the Musée des Religions du Monde entitled: Life Before Death.

Photograph by: Courtesy of Musée des Religions du Monde, Provided

NICOLET - Canada's only museum of comparative religion, situated in Quebec, has taken a big risk this summer with its new temporary exhibition showcasing portrait photos of 26 people before and after their deaths from terminal illness.

The trilingual French-English-German exhibit, which opened in May and runs through September at Musee des religions du monde in Nicolet, near Trois Rivieres, has been generating mostly positive popular and critical reaction. But people are finding it disturbing at the same time.

The exhibit, titled A la vie, a la mort, or Life Before Death in English, features before-and-after photos of 26 people who died in a hospice in Hamburg in 2003 and 2004. They gave their consent to be chronicled by photographer Walter Schels and interviewed by the science editor of Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Beate Lakotta. The exhibit has been shown in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and in Vienna, Lisbon and London elsewhere in Europe, and in Haifa, Israel. This fall, it will leave Quebec for Toyko.

Since it opened in May, more than 4,000 people have visited the exhibit in the museum in this small town southof theSt. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. Ever since the days of New France, Nicolet has been an important regional administrative hub for Roman Catholic religious orders. The decision by local movers and shakers to open a museum of religion in Nicolet in 1986 was taken as a way to reflect the town's past forward into the future.

Museum director Jean-Francois Royal says Lakotta's interviews with the people who were photographed, mostly German-born Protestants, showed them being drawn closer to God and to religion as they moved closer to their own deaths.

"Or else the reverse was true -they expressed a turning away from God, partly because of anger over their terminal illnesses," Royal said.

The official opening of the photo exhibit in May attracted some leading local and provincial politicians looking to help put Nicolet on the tourist map.

Among them were Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois and PQ culture critic Pierre Curzi. Also attending was Josee Blanchette, a Le Devoir columnist and Radio-Canada TV personality who has written a lot on themes relating to death; Blanchette agreed to act this summer as the exhibit's official spokesperson.

"The exhibition is very impressive, but maybe not because of what one might imagine," said an editorial commentary in Le Nouvelliste, the daily newspaper in Trois Rivieres. "It will affect people differently, depending on their own personal baggage. Death is universal, and yet personal and intimate in our own experience of it."

Nobody has been questioning whether Schels and Lakotta took advantage of their 26 subjects. They spent a year at the hospice in Hamburg getting to know people, and they didn't photograph anyone without first developing a relationship with them and asking for their permission.

In this ethical respect, A la vie, a la mort differs sharply from the Bodies exhibit that recently appeared in Montreal's Eaton Centre, which featured plasticized cadavers of human beings. Last week, Seattle city council voted to ban Bodies from showing in the city again, because of a lack of supporting evidence that people featured in the show gave their consent to be part of it. The U.S. firm behind Bodies says it got the bodies from a plastination factory in China that in turn got the bodies from Chinese medical schools. How those bodies got to the medical schools, though, isn't crystal clear.

Like many of the people who have seen A la vie, a la mort this summer, I found the exhibit both fascinating and unsettling.

I think it does qualify as art, in the same way exceptional photography can be considered art. But it's the text bios that intrigued me the most. It's what the people told Lakotta, the revelations.

The thought occurred to me a couple of days after seeing the exhibit that this was really print journalism at its very best, except that the medium wasn't newsprint or a webpage, it was a museum hall. In journalism, we concentrate on public life -politics, sports, and so on; we don't really see private life as a "beat" in itself.

It's different with literature. Great literature is often a great exploration of private lives. A la vie, a la mort shows us there are great journalistic stories to tell in private life, too.

"Wonderful yet disturbing!" was what museum visitor Baruch Hashem Adomai wrote in the museum guest book last week.

"Touche dans l'ame par tous les mots de ces morts," wrote a visitor from Trois Rivieres who identified himself/ herself simply as Piche.

One of the 26 people is an 18-year-old girl who died of a brain tumour. "Dear God, was it your plan that she wouldn't remain with us for very long?" the girl's mother, Elmira Sang Bastian, is quoted by Lakotta as saying.

Edelgard Clavey, a 67-yearold woman who describes herself as a practising Protestant, tells Lakotta: "I want so very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process. I cannot influence its course -all I can do is wait."

Heiner Schmitz, a 52-yearold advertising executive, tells Lakotta that people from his ad agency in Hamburg are always blowing in and out of his hospice room in festive groups of two or more with flowers and gifts to try to cheer him up. Nobody comes alone, though. And nobody ever asks him how he feels, he says.

"Because they're all scared shitless," Schmitz says.

"I find it really upsetting the way they desperately avoid the subject, talking about all sorts of other things. Don't they get it? I'm going to die! That's all I think about every second when I'm on my own."

A la vie, a la mort runs through Sept. 6. The Musee des religions du monde, at 900 Louis Frechette Blvd. in Nicolet, is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October. Admission: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students. For more information, call 819-293-6148 or visit www.museedesreligions.qc.ca


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