Following its controversial run at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Grand Palais in Paris Michael Jackson: OnThe Wall has continued to court publicity during its current run at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. No publicity is bad publicity? It certainly won’t do the attendance figures any harm that Dan Reed’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ film has put Jackson back in the spotlight.
The very first exhibition room tries to separate the Art from the Man so to speak, announcing “This exhibition is not about Jackson’s biography or memorabilia. It is about art, artistry and artifice”. There are those who might argue that Jackson’s actions around children could come under the description of artifice, but let’s try to see the objects laid out in the rooms at Bundeskunsthalle from an Art perspective. What do they tell us, both about Michael Jackson and about how people actually perceive him to be.
There seems to be something of a seismological shift between some of the MJ interpretations on display. Indeed Michael Jackson Off The Wall might be a better description of the curious video depicting only Jackson’s eyes ‘floating’ around a white screen (by Jordan Wolfson) or the Rorschach-blot mini video’s showing just a half of Jackson moving onstage and duplicated as a mirror image – and what is that bed headboard with Michael’s eyes painted onto it by Isaac Lythgoe all about?
It seems somehow contradictory that someone who seemed so unsatisfied with his physical appearance should have been so enthusiastic about artistic representations of himself, but Kehinde Wiley’s depiction of a chivalrous Jackson astride a majestic horse, stolen almost lock, stock and barrel from Ruben’s portrait of King Philip II, was actually commissioned by MJ himself although only completed after his death. Perhaps that makes it the best example of understanding how Jackson saw himself. Certainly, there are likely to be new connotations of the two cherubs (one white and one brown) looking down on Jackson from top right of the canvas since the ‘Leaving Neverland’ film was released.
Artistically, Wiley has done a wonderful job, and his Michael in shining armour on a noble white stallion is a painted kitsch version of Jeff Koon’s famous porcelain kitsch of Michael with Bubbles.
Indeed the ceramic of Jackson and pet chimp isn’t in the collection but Koon’s painstaking ceramic paintwork has been taken in the opposite direction artistically by Paul McCarthy, who turns Michael & Bubbles from fine painted porcelain detail into over-blown simplistic caricature executed appropriately enough with gold paint on plastic.
Much of the art here was commissioned for the exhibition itself, and it’s interesting given that time window, to see how Michael Jackson has been interpreted. He would likely have loved the biblically-themed photographic portraits of David LaChapelle that finish in a Pieta pose showing Christ, not in Mary’s arms but instead holding the prostrate body of Michael Jackson in his arms. Indeed, a regular theme that comes out of the artworks on display is one of sadness, of a man gifted but either persecuted by his own demons or the demons of the press. My favourite image of all here is an excellent example. Jan Pei Ming’s oil on canvas is at the very end of the exhibition. It doesn’t command much attention postcard sized, but staring down at me in all its glory at over 6 feet high and wide it demands to catch the eye with it’s ‘Contrast between the powerful icon and the nothingness of death’ as Pei Ming describes her work.
On a fan-of-the-time level Dawn Mellor’s drawings of Jackson, made when she was a teenager, are in stark contrast to her later depiction of Jackson with bright red saucer eyes and hand clawing towards the viewer which stands, appropriately, directly opposite the earlier sketches and certainly has an even more sinister resonance given recent allegations.
In keeping with wanting the art to be central, this exhibition has kept Jackson’s music to the bare minimum. There’s concert footage of a Jackson concert in Bucharest that splits its attention between the man onstage and the audience fainting and screaming before him, but the sound quality is tinny (on purpose perhaps so as not to overbear the video imagery?). There’s a room too containing video footage of East German Jackson fans singing along to MJ tracks created by Candice Breitz. It’s not a room I would want to accidentally get locked in when the video is on an eternal loop.
The best place to hear music and watch Michael Jackson is possibly a room containing small video screens and headphones. The best of all ironically being Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal‘ video overdubbed with Frank Sinatra crooning ‘Fly me to the Moon’ by Michael Gittes. Jackson also gets to share exhibits with Elizabeth Taylor, Baudelaire and Andy Warhol. The latter seems to have been particularly interested in Jackson in a butterfly collector style – for Warhol what fascinated was his subjects sense of Cult and Myth as it also did with both Monroe and Lennon. Interesting here is a letter to Warhol from an employee registering the problem of getting access to a good image of Jackson for Warhol’s use on a Time magazine cover. As the employee bemoans that Jackson himself controls and owns most of the iconic shots available of him. The rest are either done to death or so poor as to be unusable.
At the exhibition’s end, I found myself asking if the critics were correct in fearing ‘On The Wall’ was the celebration of a man who should actually be condemned. In fact, I found it to be very much more an exhibition mourning the loss and treatment of a musical legend rather than celebrating him. That’s not so surprising given that much of the artistic input comes from a period after Jackson’s 2005 trial saw him acquitted of child abuse after which much was made of Jackson’s being ‘forced’ on the road for a punishing World Tour that probably led to his death – and before new allegations began in 2013.
There is a wonderful video in the exhibition of people trying to ‘dance’ like Michael Jackson. Didn’t we all try this out at one time or another? In those days we all wanted to believe we could moonwalk like the man himself so effortlessly did, now we would all like to believe that Michael Jackson really was an innocent Peter Pan who simply wanted to be both amongst, and one of, the boys who never grew up.
I’m beyond hoping I can Moonwalk, but despite current accusations would like to think Michael Jackson really was that innocent ‘boy in a bubble’. This is 3songsbonn though, and should you ask me if classics like ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’ should be expunged from the musical map of history then I would shout emphatically ‘No!‘. Michael Jackson perfected the Art of pure Pop Music both audially and visually. Regarding ‘Michael Jackson: On The Wall‘ I will leave it to William Shakespeare to have the last (paraphrased) word stolen from ‘Julias Caesar’: ‘I come to bury Michael Jackson, not to praise him’
Michael Jackson: On The Wall
22 March – 14 July 2019