Killing off Greta and Dolly? The artist creating fake obituaries of cultural stars

The blown-up newspaper pages displayed through the windows of an otherwise sparse, all-white gallery space in London’s busy Mayfair district stop you in your tracks.

Greta Thunberg, who has died aged 19, enjoyed a meteoric career as a climate activist,” begins one, the text surrounding a photograph of the young campaigner speaking into a mic; on the wall facing her is Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton, one hand on heart, the other held aloft in a triumphant fist. “Sir Lewis Hamilton, who has died aged 38, was the greatest British racing driver…”

Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, Sadhguru, Marc Almond and David Hammons are also immortalised. The text is there in black and white, past tense, matter-of-fact, next to images of their instantly recognisable faces.

Like the horrible moment you see your favourite celebrity trending on Twitter for no apparent reason, the incredibly real-seeming works evoke a panicked double-take. But don’t worry – these obituaries are in fact hypothetical, the latest works by artist Adam McEwen, featured in his first solo exhibition in London.

The great equaliser, death is one of art’s most prolific subjects – “the biggest subject”, McEwen says – but forecasting the inevitable so intricately and so specifically for very real, very much alive human beings, makes these faux newspaper articles rather uncanny.

While some might consider the works morbid or even distasteful, McEwen sees them as celebratory, though not uncritical. Similar to the introduction these subjects might get should they appear on Desert Island Discs or This Is Your Life, they are warts-and-all markers of a life well lived; a lifetime of experiences and personal qualities distilled into roughly 1,400 words.

The works are homages to “people I love”, McEwen tells Sky News. What links Parton, Thunberg, Lewis and the other figures featured is a thread of “tension”, he says, or triumph over adversity; they have played by their own rules and won.

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“These people are demonstrations that despite it appearing life is very difficult – if not impossible – to negotiate, you in fact have more choices and freedom than you realise.” McEwen points to Parton, a performer who has written thousands of songs and who has revelled, according to his artwork, in “subverting expectations about large-breasted, big-haired women” from the American South.

“You look at the story of Dolly Parton and she demonstrates it. And Lewis Hamilton, let’s say; [it was] almost impossible to be a young black man who wants to be a Formula One driver, if not impossible. But he shows it is possible.”

Thunberg’s rapid rise from unknown schoolgirl to the world’s most famous environmental activist is one that fascinates McEwen. “Apart from her youth and her conviction,” he writes in her fake obit, “her ability to strike a chord lay in the power and simplicity of her message: older generations had left the young to suffer the consequences of their consumption. Everyone knew it; now the young weren’t going to let them ignore it anymore.”

From Malcolm McLaren to Kate Moss, Rod Stewart and Bill Clinton

As a young artist in the 1990s, McEwen subsidised his passion working part-time as an obituary writer for the Daily Telegraph. The idea to turn the form into art was born from a group show he was taking part in in 2000. “Everyone was given a Vivienne Westwood muslin shirt, a straitjacket, and we were told to do whatever we wanted. I decided to write Malcolm McLaren’s obituary… it was a homage to Malcolm and it had a kind of dark, slightly punk sensibility that made sense.”

Further fake obituaries to stars and notable figures followed, featuring everyone from Nicole Kidman, Kate Moss and Macaulay Culkin to Rod Stewart, Jeff Koons and Bill Clinton. Some would read differently now should he be starting afresh in 2023.

“They won’t be updated,” says McEwen. “Also, they function differently later. Let’s say, Macaulay Culkin, the actor. In 2004 he had a certain stature and a certain story; he was in Home Alone… 20 years later, we see it from a different position… You see this artwork now and it’s like, that’s not how I think about Macaulay Culkin anymore.”

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McLaren, the former Sex Pistols manager and partner of Westwood, later came to hear about his own obit. “I met him once and told him,” McEwen says. “He was sort of initially nonplussed and then he laughed.”

He says Koons was also aware of his. “It’s a funny relationship, but it’s not… people have said to me, why don’t you do Trump? Kill him! They’re not really getting the point.”

‘This isn’t a morbid wish – death is a fact’

McEwen says he doesn’t worry about how his subjects might react to seeing the stories of their lives told through their made-up deaths. “The only thing I know about Greta Thunberg, for real… the only thing I know for sure about Nicole Kidman or Bill Clinton, is that they are going to die. I’m not using it as a morbid wish. It’s a fact. For me also, I’m going to die.

“I don’t think [it’s] upsetting. Apart from anything else, these things exist in filing cabinets, or in digital filing cabinets, already for famous people. For Dolly Parton, there are already obituaries written for her, because they have to be. All I’m doing is appropriating something that’s already there.”

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When he worked for the Telegraph, McEwen wrote obituaries in reaction to sudden deaths – including for John F Kennedy Jr in 1999, when he died alongside his wife and sister-in-law in a private plane crash – as well as planned pieces.

Just like a real newspaper article, there may be errors to look out for in his artwork, he says. “Typos, sure. Maybe factual errors. I mean, exactly like a newspaper. It’s 6pm. It’s got to go to press. We do the best [we can] and then the next morning, ‘Oh f***, we’ve missed that typo’. It’s the same. I’ve done them when they go, ‘in 19XX…’ and I was going to find the date [but forgot], and then it’s done and it’s in the exhibition. ‘Damn, I didn’t see that.’ But it doesn’t matter, because it’s the same. It’s all part of it.”

Adam McEwen’s exhibition of fake obituaries dedicated to living celebrities is showing at Gagosian’s Davies Street gallery in London until 11 March