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Michael by Gary Hume, 2001

The way he makes us feel - Michael Jackson: On the Wall

14 July 2018 Suzanne Frost

Some of the most fun exhibitions tend to happen at the intersection of art and pop culture. Somehow, by looking at the popular with the same seriousness you’d give to fine art elevates both and results in a joyful exploration of something you don’t just have to respect but actually love. Michael Jackson was the greatest pop star the world has ever known, one of the few human beings who is instantly recognisable by his silhouette, a separate body part such as the eyes, a single idiosyncratic dance move. The omnipresent Jackson was more than a star, more than a person – he became the living embodiment of capitalism, the personification of Western culture, a concept, a symbol, a brand, a canvas for our projections.

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael jackson) by Kehinde Wiley, 2010.

What the National Portrait Gallery is displaying with Michael Jackson: On the Wall is not a retrospective of his work, not a biography or a memorabilia collection. This exhibition is dedicated to his influence on contemporary art. Jackson was one of the most influential cultural figures to come out of the 20th century and his legacy continues into the 21st. His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, videos, dance, choreography and fashion, but his influence on contemporary art has so far been an untold story. At the same time, Jackson has become the most depicted cultural figure in visual arts since Andy Warhol first used his image in 1982. Almost a decade after his death and marking what would have been his 60th birthday on 29 August, this unprecedented exhibition celebrates the collective reaction of almost 50 artists to Jackson’s cult image, inspiration and legacy.

“All the artists included – despite coming from different generations and parts of the world, and employing a range of media – are fascinated by what Jackson represented and what he invented” says Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director and curator of the National Portrait Gallery. There is indeed a wide variety of work on display, which is of an equally wide scale of quality. Works by commercial pop artist David LaChapelle and the uber-famous Warhol sit next to collages and sketches that are dangerously close to fan art or shaky amateur videos of dancers recreating the Thriller choreography.

David LaChapelle, American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly, n.d.

One of the first large images to greet the visitor is the final commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson by the artist Kehinde Wiley, on public display for the first time in the UK. It was begun months before Jackson died, finished posthumously and portrays the king of Pop mounted on a horse in late medieval armour, in emulation of the famous Equestrian portrait of King Philip II by Rubens. Wiley’s work is deliberate kitsch and yet gives a poignant critique of the ruling class and our expectations around race in history. Three of Warhol’s screen prints are there along with some photographs showing the king of pop and the king of pop art in conversation at Studio 54 and one of the time capsules, parcels full of objects and everyday ephemera he created in the last years of his life, then sealed and stored.

Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol, 1984

One room focuses on Michael Jackson’s childhood, when he became the youngest person ever on the title of Rolling Stone Magazine. In pride of place, a pair of penny loafers has been suspended by balloons, with only the toes touching the ground – a beautiful homage to the surreally talented dancer Michael Jackson and the playful, childlike facets of his personality. Jackson’s global fame trickled across every corner of the world, resulting in a story quilt from Nigeria, and a video installation about Jackson’s legendary tour to communist Romania. One of the few proper pieces of memorabilia is a fabulous “dinner jacket” by costume designer Michael Lee Bush, hung with actual miniature knifes and spoons for tassels. David LaChapelle depicts Jackson as a biblical figure, a saint and martyr, in his typically bright and ultra-stylised photographs.

P.Y.T. by British artist Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom

One of the most impactful works is Jordan Wolfson’s Neverland video, which shows only Jackson’s eyes on a white screen as he reads a statement after a high-profile court case on child abuse. The Dangerous album cover by Mark Ryden is blown up to form an arch into the next room, creating an immersive surrounding feel. The last thing you see behind a screen in the final room is Candice Breitz’ video installation of 16 German fans singing all his songs since “Thriller” from start to finish, a-capella, flaws and all, with a devotion that is comical and very touching at the same time - a direct representation of his ongoing legacy through the voices and bodies of his fans. As author Zadie Smith is quoted: “people will be dancing like Michael Jackson until the end of time.”

King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) by Candice Breitz, 2005.
 
Somewhat absent from the exhibition is Jackson music, which is playing in the background but isn’t used in a storytelling way as it was for David Bowie at the V&A. But by exploring Michael Jackson through the lens of contemporary art, the exhibition in fact throws up many wider themes acutely relevant to today, as discussions around race, identity, gender, fame, and image versus reality only seem to be intensifying. The show reveals just as much about us as it does about the “Man in the Mirror” and Jackson emerges - somewhat redeemed of his bizarre freak show image just before his tragic death - as the biggest genius in the room, and an artist who transcended binary notions of race and gender and whose work will continue to echo through time.
 
Michael Jackson: On the Wall is at the National portrait Gallery until 21 October. Tickets are £15.50 with Jackson £5 tickets available for under 25s. every Friday.
 

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