Sick! Festival, Manchester

Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m lying on the ground. Above me, a delicate mesh of bare branches, and beyond that the muted grey sky. A gentle gust of wind grazes my cheek. I can feel my muscles relaxing into the earth beneath me, my body moulding itself to the uneven, grassy surface. I can hear birdsong and the distant hum of conversation. And in my ear, a voice whispers to me of my death and decomposition.

This is Woodland, one quarter of French & Mottershead’s sound installation series Afterlife. It’s visiting the Whitworth Gallery as part of SICK! Festival, a series of events and art works across Manchester linked by the themes of life, death and survival. I start the festival programme at the end: with death and what comes after.

Think the word ‘afterlife’ and you think religion, spirituality, the promise of something more than just the heart’s final beat. But French & Mottershead’s series of artworks focuses on a strictly physical process: bodily decay. Woodland is accompanied at the Whitworth by Grey Granular Fist, another in the series. The first narrates a body’s – my body’s – slow disappearance into the earth. In the second, a body – my body – is imagined as an exhibit in the gallery, its decomposition stalled by the air conditioning and the careful attention of conservators.

Both pieces are delivered through headphones in soothing tones. The voices may talk of bacteria, putrefaction and maggots (this is definitely not an experience for the squeamish), but they have an oddly calming tenor, lulling me into a tranquil state. There’s also strange, surprising beauty in the artworks’ detailed and unsparing descriptions of what happens to the body after death: the imprint of patterns where blood pools under dead skin, or bluebells bursting through a ribcage.

Afterlife is strikingly matter-of-fact and unsentimental about death, confronting it as a physical process that every body will eventually go through. Its surroundings, though, can’t help but remind me of life. Lying beneath the trees in Whitworth Park during Woodland, my eyes are drawn to the birds above and to the moss growing on the tree trunk beside me. I feel oddly vulnerable in this position, and as a result intensely aware of my body – warm and pulsing in contrast with the corpse that French & Mottershead plant in my imagination.

Sat on a chair in the gallery listening to Grey Granular Fist, meanwhile, I feel like I’m on display alongside the paintings and prints. I glance up awkwardly at other visitors and feel blood colouring my cheeks. Halfway through listening to the piece, a group of schoolchildren gather nearby, their lively chatter buzzing underneath French & Mottershead’s descriptions. This is the productive tension in the work: between the sensations of life and the calm, quiet knowledge of death.

On the way to and from the Whitworth, my walk takes me past another artwork that’s contemplating our inevitable demise. Candy Chang’s Before I die is a giant blackboard, luring in passers-by with the provocation “before I die I want to…”. It’s scrawled all over with multi-coloured chalk responses, creating a messy palimpsest of ambitions and desires, from the outrageous to the banal. As soon as you think about death – really think about it – life’s possibilities and impossibilities seem overwhelming. Before I die is that mind-boggling thought process writ large.

Later, an afternoon at the Rethink Rebuild Society brings life, in all its mess and complication. Contact has programmed three shows offsite here, under the collective title Hiraeth – the Welsh word meaning homesickness tinged with grief or sadness. It’s a word that applies as much to the venue, which offers support and advocacy for Syrians in the UK, as to the trio of shows tucked away in various parts of the building.

All three shows have family at their heart. Toni-Dee Paul’s My Father’s Kitchen reflects on her complicated relationships with her dad, a man who is “from here, but not of here”, and with the Jamaica that her grandparents call home. Paul is Leeds born-and-bred, a Yorkshire pud and gravy sort of girl, but in her father’s kitchen she’s surrounded by the scents of another, inherited home: paprika, plantain, rum punch.

Those aromas and flavours also suffuse the small space in which Paul speaks to us like friends or confidantes. Together, we munch on snacks and raise a glass (or plastic cup) of ginger beer to Paul’s Jamaican ancestors. The communal sharing of food nourishes intimacy, as does Paul’s infectious warmth. Like the fried plantain that she passes round the audience, though, Paul’s show is more of a tasty morsel than a full meal. Her tantalising fragments of poetry, history and autobiography never quite cohere.

Food is also a vital ingredient in Afreena Islam’s Daughters of the Curry Revolution, which is again grounded in a complex father-daughter relationship. Today, Islam cares for her ageing father, but he remains something of a mystery to her. In this show, she attempts to piece together his life, melding myth and anecdote and the clues provided by his passport. None of it, she warns, can be entirely trusted. The piece is also threaded through with her own memories: filching a sip of wine from her father’s Indian restaurant as a child; stumbling around wearing his shoes and blazer.

It’s all set against the menacing background hum of anti-immigration rhetoric and increasingly emboldened racism. Islam’s father was born in Bangladesh, but he is the most English person she knows. They share a love of roast lamb with all the trimmings. On the table around which Islam’s performance takes place, meanwhile, visual reminders of India and Bangladesh knock up against jars of Golden Shred marmalade and squares of white bread. These markers of hybrid identity are placed down with little to no comment, as are the references to racism, leaving us to make of them what we will. Very deliberately, little is left resolved.

“What do you think happens to us after we die?” asks Jamil E-R Keating, sitting cross-legged in front of us. The afterlife again. Keating invites us to think of things bigger than ourselves – life after death, life on other planets – and to think of something we walk past every day on the streets of Manchester. Through a story about his uncle, Keating collides asteroids orbiting in space with homeless men orbiting the streets. Like the countless objects hurtling through the universe, we tend to think of homeless people as a mass, all much the same as one another, but Keating seeks to remind us that both asteroids and human beings are all wonderfully, messily unique.

The connection is intriguing, even if it sometimes feels a little strained. And Keating is a gently captivating storyteller, leaning forwards in the orange glow of a little side room as models of asteroids dangle and sway from the ceiling above him. As in the other two thirds of Hiraeth, the performance has a slightly fragmentary feel. But then there’s something apt about that, as if form is reflecting the jagged shards of different identities, or the uneasy fit of one home inside another.

At Contact, where I conclude my day at the festival, life, death and survival all converge. Research suggests that one in two of us born after 1960 will be affected by cancer at some point in our lives. It’s something that will kill some of us, but that many more of us will have to live with in one way or another. Taking this on board, There is a Light is a sort of cancer cabaret, loosely linking together a series of sketches based on research into cancer treatment and support for young people.

The Contact Young Company bring wit and exuberance to the heavy subject matter, along with a wealth of ideas. Possibly too many ideas. The piece is inspired by BRIGHTLIGHT, the first major study into young patients’ experiences of specialist cancer care in England, and it grapples throughout with the impossibility of telling the many stories emerging from this research. How can these experiences be conveyed on a stage? How much should be told? Who is it OK to speak for? And how?

The very fact that Contact Young Company are engaged with these questions, working them through for us in performance, makes There is a Light compelling. And it’s funnier than its subject might suggest, trying out everything from tap-dancing to stand-up in its attempt to speak awkward and uncomfortable truths. The piece is deeply political, too, taking aim at uneven NHS funding and the consequences this has for young people seeking cancer treatment. There are even some brilliantly angry sideways swipes at Brexit and the Tory government, though these feel like tangents rather than integral points. It’s scattershot, then, but its dance with the impossible is never dull to watch.

Death. Illness. Identity. None of these are easy things to confront head on. SICK! Festival invites us to look at them in different ways, from different angles. Other events in the festival (which continues until 25 March) look at themes including race, mental health, belonging, disability and the experience of refugees. Like my gaze up through the branches – a view I rarely allow myself – they might just offer an altered perspective.

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