Jonathan Monk’s Waiting for Famous People

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down physical galleries, ArtReview explores art hosted online

In a new series responding the temporary closure of physical galleries and museums internationally, published each Monday and Wednesday, ArtReview turns its critical eye to art hosted online. You might be starved of social contact, but you won't be starved of art. 

In 1995 a man stood at an airport arrivals gate waiting for a woman. In his late-20s, tall and a little gangly, he is dressed in a red polo shirt and beige corduroy trousers with a blue sweater tied around his waist. Around him reunited people are embracing loved ones who just flew in. People looked tanned and happy. The man looks a little morose. His mood might be because the woman, the pop singer Madonna, whose name the man has written in marker pen on what looks like an old envelope, is not likely to arrive.


Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Madonna), 1995, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm. Courtesy Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Sigmund Freud), 1997, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk’s series of photographs / actions, Waiting for Famous People involved the artist holding up a variety of these handwritten passenger signs, each with the name of a celebrity, artworld figure or fictional character scrawled across it, sometimes misspelt. Wham did not come, nor did the ‘Dai Lai Lama’; Jackson Pollock, Mohammed Ali and, inevitably, Godot, all failed to turn up to meet the British artist. Looking back on these pictures, which have been newly published as an online exhibition at Gallery Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen, in this moment of global shutdown catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, is an odd experience. There’s a double nostalgia: one for pop culture passed (Sharon Stone, the Spice Girls and River Phoenix date the series), but also for the openness and freedom symbolised by the arrivals lounge. If art allows you to forever recontextualise it for one’s current circumstances, then the glumness of a marooned man and his hapless situation (what is he awaiting, if not the people on his sign?) is something very relatable while sitting out, alone at home, an invisible virus as it brings life to a grinding halt. 

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Salvador Dali), 1995, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Kurt Cobain), 1995, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk Waiting for Famous People (Wham) (1995) Colour photograph 20 x 30 cmJonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Wham), 1995, colour photograph 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Liza Minelli), 1997, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Wizard of Oz), 1997, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

Jonathan Monk, Waiting for Famous People (Anyone), 1997, colour photograph, 20 x 30 cm

All works courtesy the artist and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen