Sitting in a nook where a quiet residential street turns to meet the lively chaos of South Congress Ave in Austin, Texas, is one of Candy Chang’s Before I Die walls. Unless you happen to drive through the neighborhood, or walk back that way to avoid the crowds, it would be easy to overlook. It sits in a spot where domestic life, business, and recreation all intersect. The location is a perfect symbol for the wall’s message.
If you’ve never seen a Before I Die wall, go find one ASAP. It’s a fun and truly profound piece of interactive art — just a large black and white chalkboard that asks you to consider a seemingly simple question: What do I want to do before I die? The playfulness of the presentation drew me to the wall, but the question brings me back time and again.
In the interest of full disclosure, while I visit the wall regularly, I have yet to write on it. I read it – laugh at the funny or deviant entries (there are plenty of those), smile at the profound or thoughtful ones – and then quietly walk away. I bring others to the wall and encourage them to write, but I just watch. The simple straightforwardness of the question causes me to freeze. It’s the worst kind of writer’s block… it’s not just about words; it’s about articulating desire and action.
I don’t know what to write. I want to do a million things. I want to do everything. I want to never die; I want to never grieve another loss. But, Candy Chang’s project, born from her own grief, makes me stop and face the fact that my time is limited and I have living to do. These walls are amazing because they look so innocent, so simple, but they hide in them a complex understanding of the human condition: our lives will end. Are we living them? The wall asks us to look inward.
I love reading the wall. Of course, I’m drawn to the humorous entries. My husband’s checked off desire to write on a giant chalkboard, the person who randomly wanted to slap Taylor Swift, the one who wanted to kiss a dragon. My son drew picture of Maleficent because he had just seen the movie. He is seven. He doesn’t need to worry about what he wants to do before he dies; he lives fully in the present all the time.
There are entries that are moving displays of community, of strangers trying to heal each other’s hurt. One entry read: Before I die I want to be skinny. Skinny was crossed out by another visitor who wrote happy next to it, and under it yet another wrote, You’re beautiful. The wall helps us see inside each other.
Maybe I can’t think of what to write because I’m already living the life I want. Or, maybe I’ve reached an age where I know people, have known people, who were given the deadline. I held my breath and watched them scramble to fill in all the blanks at the last minute. Or, the most likely answer is that I’m just a big pain in the butt who overthinks everything. Whatever the reason, Chang’s wall does what art is supposed to do – it disrupts. It forces me to stop, to look, to think, to act. It forces me out of the comfortable monotony of my daily rhythm. Its complexity is hidden in its simplicity, and that is what makes it so great.
If you flip the question, if you ask me what I want to do while I’m alive, then I can write a hundred things, a million things. I want to write a book, an episode of Doctor Who, be on the Muppet Show, attempt stand up, travel the world, wake up in every time zone, and on and on. But when you ask the question the way Chang has, when you ask me what I want to do before I die… well, suddenly a whole lot of things seem less important. Everything is valued differently. Playing with my son, holding my husband’s hand, feeling loved, all suddenly top the list. This board is brutal; I walk up wanting to play with chalk and walk away contemplating the human condition.
There it is, right? The point. In black and white. You step up to the chalkboard, and it doesn’t matter what your skin color is or the chalk color you use, when you fill in that blank you are the same as everyone else. You can write a joke, a fear, a wish, but whatever you write, you do it with fragile human hands. Like everyone else who comes to the wall: you are alive, you will die. Candy Chang’s Before I Die wall is a gentle nudge then, a playful reminder whispering in my ear – you are here now, pay attention, and go fill in the blank.
The Before I Die wall I visit is located at 206 E. Elizabeth St. in Austin, Texas. Find a wall near you or view pictures of walls around the world here.