It was a typically calm Sunday afternoon when I made my way to the Marriot hotel in Bristol city centre. I’m heading there to take part in (because this is very much a show that one participates in rather than watches) Jo Bannon’s Deadline. I remembered it from In Between Time 2013, when a huge red telephone crafted from flowers marked its location in the Parlour Showrooms and I wanted desperately to get a ticket. Now, two years later, I have one and I am unduly nervous about actually using it and making my appointment time.
The relocation to the Marriot hotel has already altered the production significantly. Rather than going into a building understood to be an arts or performance space, participants (I feel ‘audience member’ is wrong) enter into the hotel lobby and then are escorted up to a room where they, alone, take a phone call on the real-life version of the floral red telephone. Why a hotel? I feel slightly sick at the prospect, endlessly thinking of this clichéd image of people booking into identikit, clinical hotel rooms in order to kill themselves, the cleaners finding the body in the morning. This is my primary association between the subject of death and hotel rooms, along with a sense of repulsion at them more generally. To me, buildings like the Marriot hotel (or the Premier Inn anywhere on Earth) are the epitome of a structure singularly lacking in life – and by life, I mean anything natural, breathing or organic. The air inside them is always too still and time stands suspended within this unique microcosmic environment in which anything could occur. What Happens in a Hotel Stays in a Hotel, seems to be the unwritten rule – you could have an affair, disappear for 48 hours or even kill yourself – and you would be allowed to simply because by checking in you had simultaneously checked out of real life. Just being in a hotel makes me somewhat panic, I don’t like the stillness or the unending and unsettling repetition of room after room after room after room, multiplying like an unhealthy bacteria.
And it was perhaps these very inorganic surroundings which made what occurred next all the more potent. Taken up in the weird glittery-stone lift, I enter the room, a room as perfectly grotesque and Martin Parr-like creepy as any in one of these types of hotels, and I am hit by the smell of lilies. This, I felt, was the masterstroke. Of all the productions I have ever witnessed, the addition of the lilies was the most overt and genius manipulation of an audience. In fact, I almost felt borderline angry at such a manipulation of my senses, because the lilies were so the perfect touch and one that so enveloped and drugged the person in the room that the effect would have been lessened had I alternatively been given a little pill in the lift. For flowers are the only bits of life, literally cut off from the soil which gave them theirs, which we find in stifled hotels and boardrooms. They sit there in triumphant displays on receptionists’ desks or on tacky stands, designed to signify wealth and, therefore, the right to princessily demand anything one wants, including the beauty of the world and of nature right next door to a really awful roundabout. The flowers in hotels and corporate lobbies are probably there to ‘soften’ the surroundings and yet they do the opposite, in making the opposition between endless polished stone and dank scarlet carpets, and things that once grew in the ground all the worse.
But it is the lilies this time which both interest me and somehow make my throat catch as I remember an instruction once read for funeral attendees to forgo sending bouquets and instead arrive with a single stem of a lily. These are the flowers we think of when we think of funerals and of death. Confusingly, perhaps, because they are also so ostentatiously beautiful. Looking back after many weeks, I try to recall exactly which type of lilies were in the room. The traditional white lily to use at funerals is the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), so called because of its association with Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. Stories vary as to its association with her, some suggest that these flowers were yellow until at Mary’s touch they turned to white, but more generally they signify purity and are often included in images of the annunciation. Their inclusion in funeral floral arrangements is seen to signify that in death the deceased has regained purity and innocence. Folklore also tells of the plant spontaneously growing from the graves of those unfairly executed for crimes they did not commit. They are also a particular favourite to use when a person has died at an unduly young age.
But I do not think these were exactly the ones found in the room. I remember them being slightly streaked with colour, rather than absolutely, purely white as Madonna lilies are. My guess is that they were Lilium regale ‘Album’, a name that would create a neat link with Bannon’s new piece Alba. These Regal lilies (as they are more commonly known) can also be streaked with pink and, with their almost obscene orange pollen, are ‘those lilies’ people often buy from florists and supermarkets. Being Regal rather than Madonna would explain the insanely heavy scent that emanated from their flowers. Lilies, like roses, skirt a line – both visual and with their scents – that divides things most heavenly beautiful from those that are simply too much, almost disgustingly overpowering. And maybe this, rather than poetic and religious associations with purity, is the true reason why they are such an apt flower to associate with death. Like death, there is a beauty to them, a beauty that draws you in to take a really deep lungful of its scent, but in doing so you fall into a fog of repulsion, both at the object emitting the perfume and at yourself for so greedily wanting to feast on it. Lilies look gorgeous, but almost dangerously so. Look too long, become too infatuated and you risk getting pulled into a world of hyperstylized overkill. There is nothing very earthy about this type of lily (the woodland Lilium martagon or Turk’s cap lily seems more healthy and grounding) and the idea of someone exclusively growing lilies seems as pathologically odd as Harold Smith and his orchids in Twin Peaks. The Calla lily (not strictly speaking a lily) is otherworldly in its wax-like quality, yet the petals of Regal lilies and Madonna lilies also retain a certain sheen that reminds you of embalming and attempts to make the deceased seem unnaturally perfect (similarly, perhaps, to the pretense of associating them uncomplicatedly with the words ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’).
Lilies, in their whiteness, also speak of our relationship to death and our attempts to beautify it, cleanse it and stay one step removed from it. Heavily scented flowers could once have been a useful means of disguising the actual pong of death itself – of the decomposing body and the physical realities of leaving this earthly vessel behind. Now we don’t have to worry about such things, we can literally just smell the flowers and walk on past the (most often closed) coffin. That is unless you are directly employed to work with death. I have a telephone conversation with a woman who does exactly that (albeit organizing the services, not directly dealing with the body) and, yes, it goes relatively well. But it is the lilies, oh those lilies, that stay with me once the door has closed.