British artist Chris Barker’s annual Beatles-style tribute to lost celebs includes some of 2020’s biggest losses, including Little Richard, George Floyd, Bill Withers, Pop Smoke, soccer legend Diego Maradona, Chadwick Boseman and Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Barker — who has been meticulously crafting his homage to the infamous cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band since 2016 as a tribute to dearly departed pop culture icons and newsmakers — said his initial idea was to start with a blank slate in January and just add faces as the year went on.
That approach would have simply meant swapping out some images for more prominent ones as the year went on for a more “interactive” art project (see the final image below). But as this annus horribilis just kept getting more and more horribilis, he was glad he didn’t switch up his style. “Early spring I thought the devastating wildfires in Australia would be the defining moment of the year but, goodness me, 2020 just kept piling it on,” he tells Billboard. “So I had a couple of options of how to show this year was a year like no other. My immediate thought was social distancing; to have the characters all really spread out. But that would have proved really impractical.”
Instead, he stuck to the template of cramming as many singers, actors, athletes, public figures and news events as possible into the image, which this year includes everyone from police violence victim George Floyd to actors Kirk Douglas, Dave Prowse (Star Wars‘ Darth Vader), Sean Connery, Diana Rigg, Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Fred Willard and Jerry Stiller, as well as musical icons Florian Schneider (Kraftwerk), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Kenny Rogers, Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), reggae great Toots Hibbert, Neil Peart (Rush), Ronald Bell (Kool & the Gang), DJ José Padilla, Bonnie Pointer (Pointer Sisters) and Afrobeat star Tony Allen, among many others.
Barker’s next idea was to include a nod to how important masks were this year during the pandemic, but that would have made the concept way too complicated to pull off. After starting work a month earlier than usual (in September), he realized masking the figures would make many of them unrecognizable, and posting it around the American election as he usually does would likely leave too many important figures off in a year when the devastating hits just kept on coming.
“Who knew what else could be just around the corner? It has been such an awful, bleak year,” he said, revealing that his original background was a red sky with burning forests in a nod to the devastating Australian and American wildfires. But with Joe Biden’s victory over one-term President Donald Trump last month and talk of a COVID-19 vaccine right around the corner, suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. And instead of sticking the Biden/Harris logo “in the middle of a burning hellscape,” the Trump campaign gave him an unexpected gift with lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s legendarily disastrous presser at Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
“The surreal backdrop perfectly encapsulates the final nail in the coffin of the nightmarish Trump administration that inspired this whole project,” Barker said. “When I first did the 2016 montage, the loss of such an overwhelming number of iconic heroes was undoubtedly one of the defining stories of the year — even overshadowing Brexit and Trump. But this year, obviously the huge number of deaths from coronavirus is far more significant.”
With the real human cost of losses from COVID-19 piling up every day, Barker decided that the chalky floor of the Four Seasons parking lot was the perfect backdrop for an homage that also includes the losses of nearly 1.5 million worldwide to COVID, Trump’s presidency, Spencer Davis, Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, drag queen Chi Chi DeVayne, directors Alan Parker and Joel Schumacher, magician Roy Horn, Glee‘s Naya Rivera, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, Vera Lynn, Kelly Preston, and Gone With the Wind star Olivia de Havilland.
“Every line a reminder of a life taken, a family ripped apart. Every time I do this montage it is an emotional journey, however detached I may get from the subject matter while I’m in the thick of the PhotoShop, when I put the list together for the key at the end and look at it, it is a quite sobering moment,” he said. “I know a lot of people who have lost family members this year and I always try to remember that all the people I am including have left people behind too. I have to try to be respectful to everyone and to pay tribute to them and the way they lived their lives.”
There are always a few losses that hit Barker the hardest, and this year for him it was Kraftwerk’s Schneider, Game of Thrones star Rigg and Python’s Jones. All he asks is that if you are moved by his work, donate to the UK’s NHS charities this year.
Check out this year’s image and the key below.
— christhebarker (@christhebarker) December 2, 2020