In November 2012 the body of Herbert Bernard Erickson was found dead at Floreat Beach in Western Australia. The 81-year-old’s vehicle was found parked nearby and his clothes neatly folded on the beach. The verdict was suicide by drowning. In the previous month, the 81-year-old had pleaded guilty, and was convicted, of murdering his 73-year-old disabled partner Julie Betty Kuhn. Kuhn had suffered a stroke several years earlier and as a result was confined to a wheelchair with Erickson acting as her principle carer. The court was told that as Kuhn’s condition continued to worsen, the pair made a suicide pact, and that her death was an act of love by a man who could not bear to see his partner living in constant pain. After smothering her with a pillow, Erickson proceeded to kill his two dogs before attempting to electrocute himself. Despite suffering severe burns and losing two fingers he survived to face charges for the murder of his beloved partner. When questioned after the guilty verdict was declared, Erickson stated, “I don’t want to go to jail, I want to be with my partner, but I’m still here, worst luck.”
These tragic events are movingly recounted in Richard Lewer’s animated work, Worse Luck I am Still Here. First appearing in the Adelaide 2014 Biennale, Bernie (as he was known to friends) and Julie’s story has resonated with audiences around the world and Lewer’s work has also recently gone on to win the Blake Prize for religious and spiritual art. The overwhelming response that this work has received is unlike anything that the artist has previously experienced. “When it was shown, I’ve never had the response in my life to a work, ever, that I’ve made as this has been. Emails, phone calls from around the world, people that are either in a similar situation, or know someone in a similar situation, because I guess the commonality is, people dying, and loving people when they die and how to deal with that.”
Originally from New Zealand, Lewer has been working in Australia since 1997. He classifies himself as a Social Realist artist and seeks to tell the stories that are part of the every day and the ordinary. In the case of Bernie and Julie’s story, he first engaged with their tale upon his move to Western Australia in 2012. Lewer has previously explored the theme of crime in his work, so the news headline in his local paper about a failed suicide pact initially piqued his interest. However, the more he read and discovered about this couple, the more he came to view this case as a tragic love story rather than a straightforward crime piece. As the story evolved and took Lewer in a direction that he hadn’t anticipated, the more he found that the narrative called to be told through animation.
With the flick and hum of an overhead projector, Worse Luck I am Still Here begins with Lewer shown actively involved in the telling of the story. Standing over the projector and manipulating his drawings, the audience is greeted with a raw yet expressive portrait of an elderly man and the opening lines, “Yeah my friends call me Bernie”. Told in the first person narrative, the power of this story partly lies in the vernacular and the ordinary familiarity of Bernie and Julie’s life. With unflinching honesty, Lewer captures their simple daily routine and surroundings. As viewers, we feel as though we all know a Bernie and Julie, and this is what gives the story a resonance beyond their individual tragedy. The heartbreaking deliberation shown by Bernie, of tying up loose ends, paying bills and returning library books, further de-sensationalises his final act and settles the narrative in the everyday and ordinary.
The decision to tell the story through animation held its own challenges, with Lewer working in an experimental way with the medium. The final work combines a blend of different animation techniques, including time lapse, claymation, video using Final Cut Pro, and with many scenes constructed by filming Lewer working with drawings on an overhead projector, akin to performance art. When asked about his technique, Lewer admits he had reservations about the work, “I’m not really an animator. I’ll experiment the hell out it, so you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure. Sometimes it is a complete flop and other times, like with this work, there’s a connection and it just exceeded anything I could have imagined.” The pared back, deceptively simple approach to the animation was a deliberate choice by Lewer. Early versions of the work featured more sophisticated animation and multi-part voiceovers, but ultimately Lewer wanted the power of the piece to be in the story itself.
The work has naturally raised questions regarding euthanasia as did the incident at the time in Western Australia. For this reason it is an interesting choice for the winner of the Blake Prize for religious and spiritual art. Raised a Catholic, Lewer himself has been asked about both the religious and political implications of this work. However, for him, Bernie and Julie’s story is less an issue of politics and more part of Lewer’s role as social realist, “I didn’t want to preach; the story has touched so many people because of the truth of the story and what had occurred. In my work, I’m a social realist, I’m documenting, I’m like a journalist in a way. I go and tell the story and I try to tell it in the most accurate way that I can. And I didn’t glorify or sensationalise anything with this story.”
Deeply moving and at times unbearably challenging, Worse Luck I am Still Here presents Bernie and Julie’s story in a way which resonates with all viewers and leaves them asking the dark question, “Could I do that for a person I loved?”
For more information about Richard Lewer please visit his website.
Maggie Watson is an Arts Editor at Right Now.
Images and video courtesy of Richard Lewer.