Anyone who has lost someone close knows the brutal clarity that death brings. Death can shock us into consciousness, reminding us to be here now, to feel it all. The reality of our mortality can hit like a freight train but also brings things into sharp focus, such as how precious life is. Having an experience with death can shock us into living more fully.
Artist and urban planner, Candy Chang, went through a long process of grief, depression and existential confusion after the death of her close friend Joan, who had acted as a mother to her for 15 years but she found death also gave her perspective. This one sudden, calamitous event threw Candy in a new direction in her work.
Much of Candy’s work was focused on finding creative ways to use public spaces to connect us to our neighbourhoods, to our communities and to each other through interactive art. Mostly her canvases were unused, empty and abandoned spaces, prompting people to re-imagine what was possible there. After Joan’s death Candy’s work moved away from a civic utilitarian view of public space and took a turn for the more philosophical. Candy started asking the questions like, how can public spaces allow us to share our vulnerabilities and struggles? How can we be introspective together? And how can our public spaces become more nourishing to our wellbeing and mental health?
In the midst of her grief, Candy painted the side of an abandoned building with chalkboard paint and stencilled the words ‘Before I die I want to…’ on the wall 80 times, with space for anyone who walked by to finish the sentence. By the next day the wall was overflowing with thoughtful, poignant, tragic and funny contributions, such as, “sing for millions”, “plant a tree”, “hold her one more time”, “eat more everything”, “abandon all insecurities”.
Three years later there are around 300 ‘Before I die’ walls in over 60 countries. People began reproducing the project after Candy made free tools available on her website.
“It’s been the greatest experience of my life to see this little experiment igrow into a global project,” Candy says.
Since then, Candy has written many different contributions on many walls, but, “Right now… Before I die I want to write a bedtime story. I love fables like The Little Prince and I aspire to make something as poetic and timeless as that.”
For Candy, the walls have allowed her to reaffirm her priorities in life.
“Regularly thinking about death has brought clarity to my life and helped me maintain perspective. None of us know how much time we have left and I think it’s really easy to postpone our deepest needs. It’s easy to take the people we love for granted and it’s far too easy to neglect our relationship with ourselves.
“In our age of increasing distractions I think it’s more important than ever to remember our life is brief and tender. Regularly contemplating death as stoics and other philosophers have encouraged for a long time, is a powerful tool to restore perspective and remember the things that make your life meaningful to you.”