In London, blown-up facsimiles of obituaries are dedicated to well-known people including musicians Grace Jones and Dolly Parton, tech philosopher Jaron Lanier, and climate activist Greta Thunberg. Contemporary public figures with a diverse range of life stories and accomplishments, all of them are in fact still alive.
Begun in 2000, the series predates the ubiquity and ambiguities of social media in its consideration of history, truth, and fiction. The obituary works initially emerged from McEwen’s previous experience of writing obituaries part-time while a young artist in London. They reflect the roles that his selected subjects have played in defining contemporary understandings of the environment, technology, spirituality, culture, and identity.
Recontextualized from the newspaper page to expansive images on the gallery wall, these works emulate the look and written style of a printed newspaper of record, complete with a representative photograph and detailed expository text. McEwen adopts the detached tone characteristic of the form, distilling a lifetime of experiences and personal qualities into summary prose. Presented as posthumous, the accounts incite feelings of both recognition and paradox, prompting the viewer to consider their subjects afresh, to contemplate the hypothetical loss of these individuals, and to envision a world in which they are absent.
Acting as conceptual portraits, the obituary works draw upon the social role that newspapers retain as gatekeepers for the truth, while testing our beliefs about public figures and their representation. They play off the fact that obituaries for celebrities are often prepared well in advance of their deaths and are sometimes published in error or circulated as hoaxes. Records of the decisions and accomplishments that constitute a life, McEwen’s works propose that the act of living itself is a creative endeavor, until it ends—much like making an artwork. Paying homage to his subjects’ achievements, they also remind us of their conflicts and flaws.
The obituary works are accompanied by Rain Puddle (2023), a new aluminum sculpture that envisions a puddle of water sited indoors and raised above ground level, to be viewed within the gallery and through its windows on Davies Street. Eight rods extend up from the puddle’s surface and are surrounded by radiating ripples that are forever frozen. Offering a perpetual illusion of an ephemeral moment, the sculpture resonates with the fixing in time proposed by the obituaries.
Overlapping with the exhibition in London, Adam McEwen: XXIII, an exhibition of new paintings, will open at Gagosian Rome on February 10, 2023.