Michael Jackson: On the Wall
National Portrait Gallery
28 June - 21 October, 2018
Review by Rowland Bagnall
On my way to the National Portrait Gallery I’d been working out a rough idea of what to say about the Michael Jackson exhibition based on what I thought it would be like. I was expecting to find the gallery filled with images of Jackson’s face, revealing the intense and basically impulse of those who were drawn to him, allowing me to write something about the religious nature of his existence as an enigmatic twenty-first century martyr, idol, and even saint. It’s an image Jackson grew steadily into, from the giant promotional statues accompanying the release of his 1995 album, HIStory, to the infamous, Jarvis-Cocker-interrupted performance of ‘Earth Song’ at the Brit Awards in 1996, which ends with Jackson – dressed in white, with arms outstretched – receiving the adoration of his backing-dancers, appearing as the generically poverty-stricken inhabitants of planet Earth; there’s even something of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (c.1480) in the image of Jackson in his hospital bed, widely circulated by the media in the days following his fatal cardiac arrest. The idea of Jackson as a religious figure, or as the object of fanatical and spiritual desire, certainly accounts for several of the artworks on display, but I was wrong to think that this would be the broad extent of On the Wall. Although the work varies in quality, at its very best the exhibition typifies the complicated and contradictory nature of Jackson and his cultural legacy.
The religious aspects of the exhibition are divided. Some works stand as testament to Jackson’s enigmatic international appeal. One room contains footage from the 1992 Dangerous world tour, revealing delirious crowds, a mass euphoria even outstripping Beatlemania: while the Fab Four played to 55,000 people at Shea Stadium in 1965, Jackson’s concert in Bucharest is estimated to have been attended by nearly 100,000. And the numbers don’t stop there: more than 1,000,000 fans are said to have congregated outside Jackson’s memorial service at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, while the televised spectacle itself is said to have been watched by more than 1,000,000,000 people worldwide. “We’re more popular than Jesus,” said Lennon of the Beatles in 1966. One wonders where this places Jackson.
This devotional, even obsessional fandom is encapsulated by Dawn Mellor’s teenage Drawings of Michael Jackson (1984 - 1986). Born in 1970, Mellor was just 12 years old when Jackson’s record-breaking album, Thriller was released. Over several years she was compelled to reproduce images of Jackson – in pencil, coloured pencil, poster paint and pen – copying his likeness from photographs and magazines, producing an assemblage of portraits which constitute a kind of shrine. This same near-ritualistic practice occurs again in the work of Graham Dolphin, who meticulously copies Jackson’s lyrics onto LPs and other found objects. The white text of Thriller (x20) and Off the Wall (x25) (2017), become a shroud, veiling Jackson’s repeated image, framing it in geometric space. Dolphin’s works put me in mind of the devotional, medieval practice of copying religious manuscripts by hand, but also reminded me of several versions of the Annunciation – see Fra Angelico’s Annunciation of Cortona (1433 - 1434), for instance, or van Eyck’s Annunciation (1434 - 1436), in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. – in which the Word of God is visualized, emerging from the mouth of Gabriel as written text, making clear the connection between the Word and its divine authority.
Jackson’s lyrics come again to bear some meditative or spiritual weight in the exhibition’s final work, a video installation by South African artist Candice Breitz. For King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) (2005), Breitz invited 16 Jackson enthusiasts to perform the entirety of Thriller in a professional recording studio. The 16 films are presented simultaneously, such that the individuals become an a cappella choir. I arrived at the beginning of their rendition of ‘Human Nature’: of course, there’s something funny about the group – the performers haven’t been chosen for their ability to sing or dance – but this soon gives way to something else. These aren’t just fans, they’re followers. To them, this isn’t just an afternoon of karaoke but a means of connecting themselves to Jackson through his music.
The most overt religious parallel is drawn by American photographer David LaChapelle in his triptych, American Jesus (2010), a biblical narrative in which Jackson plays the role of persecuted martyr. It’s hard to know what to make of the series. LaChapelle seems sincere enough in his defence of Jackson across interviews, but the photographs are almost overkill. There’s something tacky and faintly ridiculous about the ‘Archangel Michael’ picture, in which Jackson stands astride a red, cartoonish Satan (complete with horns and pointy beard), while the adjacent tropical pietà, which sees Jackson cradled in the arms of an all-American Jesus – who looks a lot like Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004), – is just a great deal funnier than it is thought-provoking. The final image of the triptych, ‘The Beautification’, shows Jackson at his most kitsch, an overly-ornate and doll-like figurine: it’s hard to know how far we should take the photo seriously.
Johnannes Kahrs’ painting Untitled (Jesus Aged 43) (2015), hits closer to the mark. Painted from an image taken around the time of Martin Bashir’s controversial documentary, Living with Michael (2003), Jackson looks exhausted, on the cusp of a criminal investigation into allegations of child molestation. The soft glow of his skin is tinged with aquarium greens and blues and purple around his eyes. A decade after the fact, Kahrs’ painting offers a subtle reconsideration of Jackson’s legal innocence, his media persecution and the shifting parameters of celebrity freakdom and idolatry.
The success of Kahrs’ painting is the success of the exhibition as a whole. What’s obvious is the overwhelming compulsion to make sense of Jackson, to categorize him, while at the same time making clear his resistance to interpretation. In her 2006 book, On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson describes Jackson as a “cultural shape-shifter,” refusing to signify anything consistently. “Michael’s acts and actions were like hieroglyphs,” she writes, “that we who’d loved him kept trying to decipher”. Several artists explore the metonymic Jackson, whereby a gesture, a sound, or even just a strand of hair becomes enough to stand in for the whole, as seen in Dara Birnbaum’s The Way You Make Me Feel (2017), where four photographs of Jackson’s silhouette of his instantly recognizable body language are enough, or Gary Hume’s Michael (2001), a pallid, aluminium tondo painting, in which the simplified mask of Jackson’s facial features trigger his recognition. But the problem of interpreting Jackson returns, time and again, throughout the exhibition: we are convinced he means, though can’t decide on what. Todd Gray – Jackson’s personal photographer from 1979-83 – juxtaposes his archived images of the performer with photographs taken in Ghana as a way of probing Jackson’s international, racial, and post-colonial significance. Nearby, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s photo-collage As We See You: Dreams of Jand (2017), presents a fictionalized Nigerian domestic space, crowded by images of Jackson and his imitators, exploring his influence on (and debt to) African culture.
Though Jackson may be universally recognizable, he means something different to different people. His career is fraught with images of multiplicity. The music videos are full of doublings and hybrid characters, from the zombie-high-school-jock of Thriller to the looming panther of Black and White. I recently watched Jackson’s 1988 film, Moonwalker, a surreal, fragmented 90-minutes in which Jackson changes state in nearly every scene: he is a child, a Claymation rabbit, the 1930s gangster of Smooth Criminal, a Lancia Stratos sports car, and a giant silver battle-robot. All of which is seen under the umbrella of Jackson’s grand metamorphosis from young black child-star to the white plastic 40-something of his Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department mug shot of 2003. “[H]e took on the characteristics of a transracial experiment, a combination of attributes that had never before been seen collected in one human being,” wrote Gary Younge for The Guardian in 2009. “If there was ever a candidate to tick the box “other” on the racial categories of forms, it was Jackson”.
Jackson’s preoccupation with doubling owes something to his interest in the freak shows of nineteenth-century businessman P.T. Barnum, whose likeness appears in Mark Ryden’s King of Pop (#135) ( 1991 - 2018), commissioned by Jackson for the cover of Dangerous in the early 1990s. The painting features several hybrid creatures – echoing Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1503 - 1515) – adorning the elaborate entrance to a mysterious industrial zone. Jackson’s eyes loom over everything, his face mostly concealed: if the freak show plays on the notion of hybridity, on the uncategorizable nature of its exhibits, then Jackson is the main event. Alongside his favoured Peter Pan, it’s maybe unsurprising that Jackson claimed an emotional affinity not only to Steven Spielberg’s E.T., but to the “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick, whose skeleton he allegedly attempted to purchase from the Royal London Hospital in 1987.
Despite the singer’s many modes – captured playfully by British artist David Urquhart in A Michael Jackson Alphabet (2017), one of several new works commissioned for the exhibition – Jackson’s most consistent identifier was and is the undisputed “King of Pop”. The exhibition is presided over by Kehinde Wiley’s enormous Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II (Michael Jackson), the final painting commissioned by Jackson which was completed posthumously in 2010. While making reference to Rubens’ Philip II on Horseback (c.1628), what’s interesting about the painting is not only its grand re-affirmation of Jackson’s musical authority, but the fact that it’s really a collaboration, a last-ditch act of self-presentation, Jackson working closely with Wiley during the initial stages of the portrait’s conception. Perhaps most obviously, it’s notable that Jackson’s face is not the face he wore in 2009, the face of LaChapelle’s ‘Beautification’. Instead, the man in Wiley’s portrait is the Jackson of 1987’s Bad, olive-skinned, attractive, feminine, and defiant. He’s wound the clock back twenty years. “Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented,” says Shakespeare’s Richard II. Reflecting on Jackson’s transformations, his work ethic, perfectionism, and his ultimate demise, it’s a line that seems all-too appropriate.