Aspen Times Weekly: Death Becomes Them |

Aspen Times Weekly: Death Becomes Them

New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber in the documentary "Obit." Weber gave a talk at the Aspen Art Museum this winter about artist Adam McEwen's fake obits.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Adam McEwen, "I Think I’m in Love"

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through May, 28

How much: Free

More info:

Obituarist Bruce Weber and artist Adam McEwen shared a subject in pornographic actress and laundry soap model Marilyn Chambers.

McEwen, in a playful body of work that is on view at the Aspen Art Museum through May, created a fake obituary of Chambers in 2004. Weber wrote her actual obituary for The New York Times upon her death five years later.

Weber is the subject of the newly released documentary “Obit.” In January at the Aspen Art Museum, he gave a fascinating talk on the fake obits in McEwen’s death-themed solo exhibition and the art of the obituary (specifically, the deeply researched and gracefully written New York Times obituary, which is an art all its own).

“We are the only writers on the newspaper who never have to come up with a story,” he told a museum audience after showing an advance clip of “Obit.” “The only ones who are never around when news is made, who never witness anything with our own eyes that belongs in our stories.”

Over his eight years on the obit desk at the Times, Weber noted, he “did” — in the parlance of the trade — a plane hijacker and the person who found Hitler’s will, did Black Panthers and South African white separatists, snooker and ping-pong champions and the guy who claimed to have written “The Hokey Pokey” along with more well-known subjects like George Carlin, Yogi Berra, David Foster Wallace and Chambers. He also wrote a great number of so-called “advance obituaries,” stories about notable subjects written in anticipation of their death (though he’s now retired from the Times, his advance obit on filmmaker Jonathan Demme ran just last week).

At the museum, Weber linked his own work with McEwen’s by talking about the process of the advance obit, calling McEwen “an explorer in what-if-manship, whose obituary art mischievously declares the future present.” McEwen’s fictitious obituaries for living figures include subjects like the novelist Bret Easton Ellis, model Kate Moss, actress Nicole Kidman and President Bill Clinton. The only untrue statement in them is that the person has died — the rest is written in the standard obit style that McEwen learned while writing actual obituaries for the London Daily Telegraph.

“His subjects, like mine, are going to die someday — Bill Clinton, Macaulay Culkin, Jeff Koons, Bret Ellis and the others — but he took it a step further, announcing the subject’s death as a fait accompli at the time the art was made,” Weber said.

One notable overlap between McEwen’s process and Weber’s, he noted, was the common newsroom debate over whether to write advances on the deaths of young celebrities with apparently death-defying lifestyles, like Britney Spears a decade ago or Charlie Sheen in his tiger blood phase (Keith Richards, he joked, has had an obit on file at the Times for three decades).

McEwen’s works are presented like blown-up newspaper clippings, pretty much visually indistinguishable from Weber’s works. For the artist, the artworks were about playing with the truth and with the strange history-shaping power of the obituarist.

“I write this thing, the next day it gets printed, it’s technically ‘true’ and it’s ‘history’ and it gets put in archives,” he told me before the show opened early this year, “and that seems absurd.”

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