The Art of Dying

Kelly Vicars is an artist and former Stanford Longevity student. Before her latest exhibit, The Art of Dying, Vicars spoke with Center on Longevity Mind Division director Amy Yotopoulos.

Kelly Vicars

Kelly Vicars

Q: Tell me about how you became interested in Longevity.

A: As an undergrad, I took as many Introductory Seminar classes as I could. I wanted tastes of lots of disciplines. I was a Cultural Anthropology major, but had also considered majoring in Art or designing my own major. When I signed up for Laura Carstensen’s IntroSem on Longevity my sophomore year, the topic was completely foreign to me. As a 20-year old, I was unused to thinking beyond next week! But the class gave me a whole new way of thinking about how we can design for our whole lives, both personally and societally. I realized how important the conversation about longevity is and how exciting it is that people my age can be having it.

Q: What inspired your invention of a new version of the board game “LIFE”?

A: I am an artist and wanted to create a final project for our Longevity class that would support new conversations about how we play the real “game of life”- our own. The classic board game LIFE begins at college and ends at retirement – ignoring childhood, adolescence, AND the 30 extra years of life, on average, that we have been gifted as a result of increased lifespans. My game offers possibilities for utilizing those extra years across the life span: maybe you take a gap year, or start a new job at age 80. I wanted to involve metrics beyond money to measure life success. In my game, health points, happiness points, and community points determine how you fare, in addition to dollars. Hopefully the game helps people ask themselves what it means to be holistically successful. It presents life less as a race to riches and retirement and more like an exciting journey.

Q: Please describe your new exhibit, The Art of Dying, and how it came to be.

A: I had a dream about a man who was traveling town to town with a little wagon that people would climb into and experience their own death, abstractly. It wasn’t scary – in fact, it was joyful. And then they’d get out and go about their way. Today’s immersive technologies such as VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are new artistic mediums that allow us explore the human experience of dying from new angles. The exhibit The Art of Dying was designed as a platform of artists and creators who are using the medium in fascinating ways. We have 25 artists from around the world contributing to this exhibit. Together, the artists are exploring what it means to be alive, and to create an immersive artistic space that engages different perspectives on this topic.

Q: I love the VR angle, and haven’t yet seen the exhibit…what can I and other visitors expect?

A: The show is designed as a space for exploration. We want to respect that participants will enter the exhibit with different perspectives and experiences around death and dying, some of them difficult or charged. We support participants’ outward journey through the exhibit, and their inward journey to engage with what being mortal means to them, on their own terms. To give participants space for this, we’ve set up time slots that allow participants to explore the two floors of art, music, installations without waiting in line.

SCL: Art and death are two words you don’t normally hear together. Do you think this will help address our taboo and fears of looking death in the face?

A: Art gives us a way to creatively explore how we imagine dying – an experience we’re all going to have. There are a thousand ways to look at it; we assign so much meaning to death. This show is a constellation of over 30 imaginative visions of what transition looks like. The experiences range from joyous to thought-provoking, meditative to silly, deep to fantastical, sublime to sad. We hope the exhibit will inspire new ways of looking at death and support new conversations about living. It has been an honor to support these incredible artists and their bold and inspiring immersive art.