A scratchy sound of white noise emanating from a small radio fills the dark room. A faint voice comes through. It sounds like nothing from this world, as if death itself was speaking.
Somewhere else, sickly patients lie in hospital beds in hell. They don’t understand why they are still sick. They listen to the hospital radio, but it doesn’t play their favourite songs. Instead, they listen to the sounds of a life once lived.
Fading Out of Dead Air (Transmissions for the Necropolis) is the third and final part of writer and performance artist Martin O’Brien’s trilogy as Writer in Residence at Whitechapel Gallery.
Following inaugural performance An Ambulance To The Future (The Second Chance) in May and July’s large scale Overture For The End (An Ashen Place), December’s new work continues to explore mortality through ideas of immortality.
Taking its inspiration from hospital radio and pop culture references to ghosts heard only through analogue technologies, Fading Out of Dead Air (Transmissions for the Necropolis) explores the human desire to communicate and record. In a strange and eerie landscape, O’Brien shuffles around, recording and playing half heard voices and unholy sounds. The work will take the form of a durational performance-installation, open to visit during the gallery open times, which on Thursday December 14th will be from 11am-9pm.
Martin says: “‘I’ve always loved the radio. From listening to local radio as a kid, to long stays in the hospital, with hospital radio playing all day. From Saturday football commentary to waking up in the middle of the night with strange stories playing out through the airwaves. I listen all day every day. I’ve started to become interested in the conceptual possibility of radio as a ‘visual’ art. I want to experiment with the ways that images might translate to or produce sound.
My voice and the use of recording sound have been important parts of the first two pieces in the residency trilogy. Each piece has involved recording on tapes as part of the process of the performances. I wanted to make a piece where voice, and sound were at the centre recording was the main action. The trilogy has been dedicating to exploring mortality through the idea of immortality. I was asking what we can learn about life and death by thinking about the possibility of living forever. As part of that, I have looked at a lot of pop cultural representations of ghosts. I am interested in the films where ghosts can only be heard through radios and other recording technology. I want to capture that spooky feeling through the radio. It’s like a hospital radio show for the dead, or for the living by the dead”.
Martin will be joined at times, during this 10-hour durational performance, by invited guest performers, details to be announced.
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 in order 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, Martin has shown work throughout the UK, Europe, USA and Canada, and is well known for his solo performances and collaborations with the legendary LA artist and dominatrix Sheree Rose. He has shown work at Tate Britain in 2020 and the ICA, London in 2021 where his week-long season of performances sold out. He is both winner of the Philip Leverhulme Prize for Visual and Performing Arts 2022 and writer in residence at Whitechapel Gallery throughout 2023. At Whitechapel, the first two works in this current trilogy sold out all advance tickets ahead of time, generating considerable interest and comment.
Martin has cystic fibrosis and all of his work and writing draws 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 in The Guardian, Frieze Magazine, on BBC Radio and Sky Arts television He is currently Senior Lecturer in Live Art at Queen Mary University of London.
Top Photo: Zack Mennell
Martin O’Brien Fading Out of Dead Air (Transmissions for the Necropolis) Thursday 14th December, 11am-9pm, Whitechapel Gallery
In The Past:
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 Gallerywww.whitechapelgallery.org/life-is-more-important-than-art/
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
Martin O’Brien Overture For The End (An Ashen Place) Whitechapel Gallery 22 July 2023. 6-11 pm. £5.00