Making sense of a terrible loss through art

Dementia is a cruel disease which strips people of their identity and memories while loved ones witness their decline.

For that to happen to a family once is heart-breaking but Julia Griffin lost both of her parents to the same debilitating illness in the space of three years.

Julia’s mum Christine died in 2018 after a battle with vascular dementia. Her dad Ken cared for Christine for most of her illness but was later diagnosed with the same brutal disease. He died in October last month.

“It’s like a 15-year closing of a loop going through this dementia journey with both my parents,” said Julia.

“Especially with my dad as I cared for him, whereas my dad cared for my mum before the disease became too much. The most rewarding and privileged part of this whole unique and challenging journey is that you spend precious time with your loved one.

“You see them laugh, feel frustrated, vulnerable, wise beyond words and still not defined by the illness – although I felt at times my brain was boiling with anger at what was happening.”

Julia, a dance and video artist at Liverpool Hope University, immersed herself in artistic projects as a way to make sense of what she had been going through. And her latest production in Warrington for the Contemporary Arts Festival is an expression of those feelings.

The installation and performance is called I Used To Be and will take place in the basement of the former Marks and Spencer store in Sankey Street on Saturday, 27 November.

Thanks to a project by Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery to breathe new life into commercial properties that are long term vacant or hard-to-let, the former shop unit has been transformed into a temporary space for artists under the name Castlefield Gallery New Art Spaces: Warrington.

Most public-facing projects in the venue have taken place on the ground floor but Julia’s work will be in the basement where stock was stored for M&S. There is also a loading bay and two industrial freezers offering a reminder of what the building used to be.

“It’s a really amazing space,” added Julia, who has appeared in music videos for The Beautiful South and Black Grape.

“People will remember the building as M&S but they probably won’t be familiar with the basement. It feels subterranean and cave-like and that is what intrigued me. I’d describe it as almost like an industrial cathedral with all those pillars.”

The immersive installation will be truly multi-media with live performance, projection mapping, artwork and ‘kinetic typography’ which is animated words that drip into the space. Taking advantage of the unique venue, guests are welcome to sit and take it all in or walk around parts of the building throughout their visit.

Julia describes it as part memorial to her parents and part exploration of what it is to be a carer to a loved one.

She said: “I Used To Be explores the role of a carer and how you suddenly, in a way, start to lose your identity. We talk about people with dementia losing who they are but very little is talked about in terms of what happens to the carer – that role of looking after someone with dementia and how it affects them.

“I think the interesting thing about this is it is a part memorial so when I said the basement is like an industrial cathedral it has this very calm, peaceful quality to it. Putting this together has been really therapeutic. It has been my version of bereavement therapy.”

The Warrington performance is the follow-up to Julia’s 2017 work Stuck, a project exploring her mum’s journey with vascular dementia.

Julia added: “Working on these performance installations has been brilliant because it feels like my mum and dad are still with me in a wonderfully enigmatic sort of way. I’m going to be in Warrington performing from 1pm to 9pm on the day and I’m sure it will be very cathartic experience.”

I Used To Be takes place on Saturday, 27 November, at New Art Spaces: Warrington (the former M&S store) in Sankey Street with performances hourly between 1pm and 8pm. The event, which is unsuitable for wheelchairs and buggies, is part of the Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival programme with support from Castlefield Gallery. Tickets are here