Bruges exhibition gives voice to the terminally ill


A sensitively paced but gut-punching exhibition at a former hospital in Bruges brings visitors up close to mortality, the injustice of illness and what it’s like to be on your deathbed

“Great appreciators”

Just off the thoroughfare of shops flogging lace and waffles in the tourist heartland of central Bruges lies the medieval Sint-Janshospitaal. Greeted by Evelien Vanden Berghe, assistant curator at Musea Brugge, I climb the circular, stone staircase to the atmospheric gallery under the wooden eaves to visit the exhibition Right, Before I Die by American artist Andrew George.

Vanden Berghe confesses a particular resonance with the exhibition, which runs until the end of June. “I feel it’s really fitting to have brought Right, Before I Die to this space. For many centuries, it was the sick and dying who were treated downstairs. Now, here in the attic we host an exhibition that seeks out and gives a voice to the terminally ill.”

Fruit of two years of conversations with patients at a hospice in California, and with an endorsement from renowned Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, the project garnered an enthusiastic reception online. It piqued the interest of Vanden Berghe, who oversaw the transition from the web to an understated exhibition running along one wall of the low-lit hall. 

Portraits of different sizes, one for each person interviewed, are accompanied by snippets of conversation highlighting the joys and regrets of patients as they ponder their mortality.

With a perspective that perhaps only the dying can truly achieve, Odis, for instance, advises: “It no longer matters quite so much who we squabbled with and what our anxieties may currently be about. We are set free from things that shouldn’t constrain us in the first place: fears, wrong preoccupations, false values.”

Stark simplicity

Particularly poignant are the handwritten letters accompanying each portrait, the writing barely legible and the sentences painstakingly formed. Not surprisingly, they speak of the importance of family, forgiveness and of what comes after.

Time is so precious. God, it’s precious

- Sarah

Faith and doubt intermingle. “I pray there is not a charlatan behind a curtain pulling it away,” John wrote.

The random injustice of illness hits home as Sarah, not yet middle-aged, states with stark simplicity: “Time is so precious. God, it’s precious.”

At the end of the line, a mirror beckons us to reflect (the implication being, before it is too late). And that is the key to this sensitively paced exhibition. Rather than dwelling on death, it seeks to reaffirm life.

It was this vitality that moved de Botton to contribute. “The dying are the great appreciators,” he writes in the foreword to the accompanying book. “They were once like us, of course. They wasted decades but now they are in a position to know of their folly and warn us of our own.”

Or, put rather more succinctly by Abel (pictured): “You have a one-way ticket; don’t waste it.”