HIs every crotch grab sent jolts of ecstasy across the globe, his every spasmodic hip thrust left the world reeling. That’s an inhuman level of power for one human to have. It ended up being too much for Michael Jackson, and maybe too much for the rest of us too, which may explain how the National Portrait Gallery can put together a whole show of art inspired by MJ and without it being mega-cheesy or ultra-dull. I had more reservations than an over-hyped London restaurant when it came to this exhibition, but let it be publicly stated here: I was wrong.
But don’t come expecting biographical information, chronology, memorabilia or easy narratives – this is about artistic reactions to the king of pop, not chintzy nostalgia. The show treats MJ as the ultimate symbol of fame, obsession, talent and the power of black America. It begins with the MJ you expect. He’s sat on a horse, clad in ludicrous armour, in an obscenely ostentatious Kehinde Wiley portrait. Showy, proud, showbiz. And then look at the starry-eyed adoration in Andy Warhol’s manic documenting. But that’s the façade.
Susan Smith-Pinelo’s dancing cleavage, bouncing to ‘Working Day and Night’ across a series of screens, tells you infinitely more about the man. MJ made the world dance, and in the process opened floodgates of black sexuality and cultural pride. There are plenty of brilliant black artists here. Glenn Ligon paints MJ as a child as if it’s a self-portrait, Isaac Julien uses his face in collages, Auppau Junior Boakye-Yiadom attaches helium balloons to a pair of shoes, leaving them eternally on their tiptoes. This is MJ as a statement of the power and legitimacy of black America, a revolution in pop and culture.
But he also represents the absolute excesses of fame. Suddenly, MJ becomes twisted, troubled, fragmented. He’s Jesus in David Lachapelle’s photos, he’s the capitalist antichrist of communism in Dan Mihaltianu’s installation of masks, he’s the modern Baudelaire in Lorraine O’Grady’s photos. But he’s a ghostly spectre too. Jordan Wolfson obscures everything but MJ’s eyes in a glaring video, taken from the musician’s statement against accusations of child molestation. The show takes a very dark turn, and Wolfson’s piece is the most disturbing work here.
But maybe Candice Breitz’s video installation of 16 Germans singing the entirety of ‘Thriller’ start to finish sums it up best. In their MJ outfits and out of tune, obsessive voices, these hilarious, passionate doofuses make you realise that MJ never really existed: he was an idea, a god, an idol to worship.
Not everything here is brilliant, but as a whole, this exhibition is an incredible example of using art to decode, uncover and reveal myriad concepts and ideas. This is a show about fame and obsession, about how desperately we seek idols and how remorselessly we consume them. It’s also about how much impact one person can have on the world. That’s the true power of Michael Jackson: the way he makes you feel.
Please note, Time Out’s discounted tickets for this event are only available for weekend viewings. For weekday or full-price tickets, please click here.