Michael Jackson: On the Wall – an exhibition, plenty of voices

Michael Jackson: On the Wallis currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until October 21st. In the words of Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery director and the curator, the exhibition seeks to convey the artists’ ‘[…] fascination, solidarity or sympathy for what Jackson represented, what he did and what was done to him. The exhibition examines Michael Jackson as both an artist recognised as such by other artists, and as a total work of art’ [1].

This being the case, museum visitors will not be presented with Michael Jackson’s personal objects, costumes and other memorabilia items, but rather with a wide range of artworks inspired by him or his image. It alsodiffers from the majority of the more recent exhibitions about musicians from popular music in that, although music is present in the exhibition, it is not the focus of the narrative nor is it exhibited as a museum object. Nonetheless, I find the exhibition remarkably fulfils a major aim in museum practice today: that of addressing the diversity of ways in which a certain matter resonates with the exhibition’s visitors – in the case of Michael Jackson’s exhibition, it widely addresses the ways in which audiences use Jackson’s music and personal image as a self-referential construct in which they build their own identities.

In more detail, it comprises the exhibition of 83 works of art, each accompanied by a text explaining in general terms what moved and compelled the artist to produce a work about Jackson and about what led them to approach him in a certain manner. There is a multitude of perspectives and one can easily find an approach resembling one’s own: portraits of the singer as reflected through his admirers or works reflecting the biographical dimension of pop and the way it becomes the soundtrack to a life, to name only a couple. As it is an exhibition that shows what artists made of Michael Jackson and, in some sense, what audiences made of him – as Jackson shifted into constantly new entities, there are plenty of perspectives – it forms a portrayal of the condition of fandom itself, a portrayal of Michael Jackson as a cultural icon and so of Michael Jackson as part of collective memory.

I have read some reviews that maintain that the show is confusing in that it jostles together visual traditions as different as pop, conceptual, post-pop, post-conceptual and plain commercial, but I find this critique inappropriate in the light of the purposes of the exhibition. In fact,the textual discourse and the organisation of the rooms follow the rationale of identities that Jackson presents,by means of foregrounding the particular perspectives artists took on him. Furthermore, as one reads each work’s panel text, there is no mention of artistic techniques. From all these perspectives, Jackson as a surrogate for blackness is perhaps the most significant. In fact, ‘[…] the Jackson family was the first wholesome black American family who entered homes all over the US […] during a time when most black [African-American] people were portrayed as criminals, [or] drug addicts’ [2]. In line with this, in the exhibition, images of black people speak to people who have always felt excluded, to popular audiences and to culture at large.

A must see.

[1] Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 16.

[2] Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 18.

 

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