Martin O’Brien Explores Death And Immortality At Whitechapel Gallery 

Photos: Martin O'Brien Photo: Zack Mennell © 2023

A spectacular exploration of death and immortality, this newly commissioned performance work by Whitechapel Gallery Writer-in-Residence 2023 Martin O’Brien transforms the gallery into a place of ceremony. Overture For The End (As Ashen Place) follows the residency’s inaugural event, An Ambulance to the Future (The Second Chance), which sold out at Whitechapel Gallery this May. O’Brien is joined this July by an auspicious cast of young queers and old queens, including celebrated Los Angeles performance artist Sheree Rose who, due to her decades-long practice, is, like O’Brien, living in ‘zombie time’. Martin lives with cystic fibrosis, continuing to outlive his life expectancy whilst remaining active and prolific.

Featuring O’Brien’s signature blend of humour and durational action, the work calls in the undead to playfully imagine the potential for immortality and a future without an eternity of nothingness. This durational work will be presented within the frame of the Life Is More Important Than Art programme this summer at Whitechapel

Photos: Martin O'Brien Photo: Zack Mennell © 2023
Photo: Martin O’Brien Photo: Zack Mennell © 2023

In Overture For The End (As Ashen Place), bodies crawl through soot-covered landscapes. A ghastly figure stands with whip in hand, unearthly sounds emanating from her mouth. A funeral procession for the living marches by, trumpets sounding, and the mourners weep, but they don’t know why. A group of skeletal forms sit at a dining table as if awaiting a feast.

Overture For The End turns the gallery into a place of decay, part hellscape, part apocalyptic landscape, filled with strange bodies performing deathly actions. The performance imagines repetitive cycles of life and death. It envisions an eternity of continuation with a promise of death that never arrives. It explores the sounds of life and death: breath, song, shrieks, calls, wailing, screaming, gasping. Sheree Rose takes on the figure of an old crone, a banshee, watching over the cycles and actions of O’Brien, intervening in different moments.

The cry of the banshee signals someone is about to die…. 

Says O’Brien: “I’m so excited to be working at Whitechapel on this series. This piece is the biggest yet and will allow me to create something large. Art is a survival strategy for me and many others that live with a life-shortening illness. I’m particularly excited to have my long-term collaborator, Sheree Rose, coming from LA to work with me on this. It develops our ongoing collaborations exploring ageing, friendship, kink, and intergenerational family.”

Martin O’Brien is an artist and zombie. He works across performance, writing and video art. His work uses long durational actions, short speculative texts and critical rants, and performance processes to explore death and dying, what it means to be born with a life-shortening disease, and the philosophical implications of living longer than expected. Originally from Burnley, Lancashire, he has shown work throughout the UK, Europe, USA and Canada. He is well known for his solo performances and collaborations with the legendary LA artist and dominatrix Sheree Rose. His most recent works were at Tate Britain in 2020 and the ICA (London) in 2021. He is winner of the Philip Leverhulme Prize for Visual and Performing Arts 2022. He is writer in residence at Whitechapel Gallery throughout 2023. Martin has cystic fibrosis; his work and writing draw upon this experience. In 2018, the book ‘Survival of the Sickest: The Art of Martin O’Brien’ was published by Live Art Development Agency. His work has been featured on BBC radio and Sky Arts television. He is a senior lecturer in Live Art at Queen Mary University of London.

Photos: Martin O’Brien Photo: Zack Mennell © 2023

Instagram: @martinobrienart 


Martin O’Brien Overture For The End (An Ashen Place) Whitechapel Gallery 22 July 2023. 6-11 pm. £5.00

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