in Reviews | 19 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

Lucy Beech

Harris Gallery, Preston, UK

in Reviews | 19 AUG 15

Lucy Beech, Me and Mine, 2015, film still

They say there are two things we cannot escape from in life: death and taxes. Me and Mine (2015), the eponymous centrepiece of this first major solo exhibition for Lucy Beech, could be said to look at the space between these two things: the bureaucracy – specifically the gendered bureaucracy – that surrounds death. The film is a detailed portrait of women in the funeral industry, drawn from two years’ research and revolving around an annual awards ceremony for females in the business. Me and Mine depicts an industry at a point of change as a microcosm of wider societal shifts. In a trade that has been male-dominated since the Victorian era, women – whether as celebrants, embalmers or funeral directors – are shown to be reclaiming the territory of affective labour, offering, perhaps, a more sensitive or emotionally intelligent ‘care package’ and fighting for recognition. But in doing so they are also caught in a double bind, potentially reinforcing traditional stereotypes. Beech is interested in studying the ‘affective economy’ – the emotional labour involved in the act of providing service at a time of bereavement. As viewers, we are invited to extend empathy towards those whose business is empathy.

The camera follows one of the undertaker hopefuls, Vivian, during her time at the event, from small talk to unspoken rivalry to hen party-style release. Nuanced social dynamics are seen to be operating below the surface. Vivian works for a large corporate outfit, the Co-operative, whilst Helen, another strong character, is an independent. The award ceremony is an occasion where professional pride (or, at times, shame) mixes with personal identity, socializing melds into networking and alienation meets the propulsion to integrate. We observe a group of women in a situation of public intimacy and professional performance as they navigate inter-personal relations within the language and codes of modern working life. Glances are exchanged, groups are formed and people left out, reflective moments occur – all amidst the vocabulary of ‘credible passion’ and ‘self deliverance’ – whilst building up to the announcement (and aftermath) of who will receive the award for Best Female Funeral Director of the Year.

Lucy Beech, Me and Mine, 2015, film still

The other two video works on display, Buried Alive and Cannibals (both 2013), offer witty mediations on consumption, involving contrived episodes of social and professional performance by seemingly everyday female characters. Cannibals has the feel of an amateur group therapy course, in which participants learn exercises in the art of eating what we assume to be fellow humans. Beech and her frequent collaborator, Edward Thomasson, have for some time been developing a kind of fictive documentary filmmaking. Scenarios are observed, considered and re-enacted, as though rehearsals for episodes that have already taken place. Running throughout is a sense of reflexive anthropological study, both complicit and distanced, choreographed and improvised, observational and narrative. At different moments, the films resemble corporate videos, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and, in the case of Me and Mine, primetime TV drama.

It is notable that at no point in Me and Mine do we see dead bodies – the activities of the funeral parlour are only ever referred to rather than shown. For society today, death (as per the abattoir vis-à-vis the meat we buy in supermarkets) is marginalized and made invisible, confined to hospitals, sanatoriums and cemeteries on the edge of town, and carefully packaged by the undertaking profession. The Grim Reaper has joined the ranks of the administrators and he is very probably a she.