For ages 15 onwards
Written by Aditya Singh, a grade 12 student.
The public interactive art piece acting as a mirror for human understanding over the transience of life.
A Before I Die wall from Savannah, Georgia (Image from the ‘Before I Die’ site)
I first came across ‘Before I Die’ while casually surfing social media. An art piece that nudges humans to regard their own mortality in a gentle way, there was something about it that just stuck with me. Its premise is deceptively simple, but therein lies its brilliance. As made evident by the name, at first glance it is just a wall urging you to think, “What is something that I would like to do before I die?”. The answers range from crude and charmingly humorous to colourful and deeply passionate. You look at the wall, read some of them and you move on.
But, think about it enough and you realise, these answers, they aren’t just what they seem. The stroke of genius behind the piece is that you ask these living breathing humans to contemplate the end of their existence and you gently prod them to think, “Would I be happy before that happens?”.
Some of the wishes end up being achingly sad, just things that all humans should be able to get and yet are so out of reach for some that they end up writing their pain for strangers to see. (Image from the ‘Before I Die’ site)
Art, is subjective. I’ve looked at this piece countless times and I can easily see two different versions of me trying to understand it.
There’s a younger version of me, a version of me struggling with mental illness and troubling thoughts. A version of me that thought of Death as something that I could easily turn to as an escape from the hardships of life.
You see, humans are for the lack of a better word, arrogant. We like to assume who we are. We act as if understand our place in this unfathomably large universe that we are but a tiny speck in. We pretend to understand Death. It’s easy enough to know what Death is. Someone was alive, they were breathing, eating, talking, and then, they were no longer doing so. But to understand Death? To understand something that almost doesn’t seem real? Think about a person, any person. Just by existing their lives become intertwined with other lives. Each person a unique collection of interests, emotions, experiences. A human, a miracle of life, that even before exiting the womb started changing lives. Think about a friend, a family member, to think that someone who has a life so deeply connected with the world would just cease to exist. How arrogant must we be to say we understand this? How arrogant was I to think I understood this?
This version of me looked at the art piece as something frivolous. It was just a bunch of people writing their wishes on a wall, thinking it would make any sort of difference. To me, it was just a sad wish list. Something that I would look at with contempt to feel better about my own indifference towards life and what I made of it.
Then, on the other hand, is the present version of me. It’s someone who decided to reach out and get help for their problems. And as I did so I realised that to really understand this piece I had to understand the sanctity of life first. What I saw as a sad wish list at first glance was actually an attempt by people to come to terms with their own mortality and to rethink their life. It was people trying to understand the true complexity of existence and their part in it. It may not always be a 100% successful attempt, but then again, no effort ever is. And with that, perhaps it is also an outlet for grief, for the pain that we hold within, for the things we cannot say to those around us.
The answers which seemed like mere wasteful wish-fulfilment to me a while ago? They no longer seemed so. What was so wrong about that anyway? Does everyone not deserve their own place and happiness in this world, does everyone not deserve to leave behind something that they are proud of? I saw how the piece struck the innate human desire of being remembered, of leaving a mark.
We dread the feeling of our life just being a string of pointless tasks until we die. We have this fear and we counter it with our desire to make change, perhaps for the world, or perhaps just for ourselves. And when people write their answers on these walls, they inadvertently take a deep look at themselves, and in that moment, try their best to decide what this ‘change’ will be for them.
Looking at this piece now, I saw an artist who just by using a mere wall was helping communities open up to each other. I saw people showing a part of themselves to complete strangers, and I saw those strangers reciprocating. And this time, the sight of people trying to reach an untouched corner of the board just so that they could say something about themselves, to let go of their fear and share some of their dreams, it made me happy.
First created by Candy Chang to cope with the loss of a loved one in February 2011 on the wall of an abandoned house, there are now over 5000 such walls around the world. You can see the responses shared by people around the globe and even find out how to set up your own wall at the ‘Before I Die’ site