ARTIQ Reviews | Michael Jackson: On the Wall at National Portrait Gallery

In the latest of our ARTIQ Reviews series, ARTIQ Head of Arts, Helen Buckley shares her opinion on National Portrait Gallery’s recent show on ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson was the first black musician to achieve worldwide fame on quite the scale that he achieved and to help break down barriers that had previously limited opportunities for African-American artists. Beyond his obvious huge talent, perhaps his strange tale of overcoming this limitation and then becoming a victim of his own fame in such a public way is what makes him such an intriguing entity.

That this exhibition takes place at the National Portrait Gallery is an assertion of how highly placed Jackson’s status is in modern culture. ‘The King of Pop’, ‘Global Icon’ and ‘Superstar’ are labels that are continuously bandied about. Many of the works, although not always technically appealing, are brilliant in their exploration of issues of fandom and idolatry. Not only an homage to Jackson’s influence on contemporary art, this exhibition is also a stark look at society’s production of mega fame status and how our reverence and subsequent vilification contributed to his downfall.

Hank Willis Thomas: “Our society’s Frankenstein… he turned into a monster of all of our perversions projected on to him.”

With the many facets of Jackson’s life, there is a lot of material to go on and an exhibition that entices you to dance and sing along is certainly a different experience to the usual retrospective one might frequent at NPG. That alone makes it a thrilling experience.

Andy Warhol features heavily in the show, not just because of the room dedicated to him, but also because of the many artists, such as Keith Haring, that he introduced to Jackson. Warhol’s own apparent obsession with Jackson’s image is perhaps one of the best examples of how he became a commodity to be exploited. His image eventually became so recognisable that he could be recognised by his eyes or silhouette alone.

One elephant in the room is that the curators were unable to loan any of the existing editions of Jeff Koons’ famous sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Although referenced by two of the artworks on display, omitting the most famous artwork of Jackson is a bit of a disappointment. Despite this, there are still some very thought-provoking pieces here and the exhibition is still poignant.

There are some fantastic parts of the exhibition: Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s sculpture for example, shows 20 helium balloons lifting a pair of penny loafer shoes, making reference to Jackson’s famous dance move, the ‘freeze’, in which the singer balances on his toes. The plaque points out that the balloons need to be replaced as they individually deflate, playing on the continuous effort required to uphold his public image.

Another work that struck a chord with me was Dan Mihaltianu’s 1992 installation, which meditates on the remarkable meeting of the western, high-capitalist spectacle that was Michael Jackson and the response to him from a newly post-Communist society. The installation shows footage from Jackson’s Dangerous world tour, which takes place in Bucharest just 3 years after the fall of Communism and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. The video mainly concentrates on images of the crowd, hysterical at every hip thrust Jackson makes, depicting Jacksonmania at its dizzy height, juxtaposed against images of Romanian people from newspaper articles at the time.

Perhaps the most enjoyable work for me was Candice Breitz’s video installation that came as the final piece of the exhibition. The artist filmed Jackson fans from Germany and Austria in a recording studio, singing acapella through the entire Thriller album. The 16 performers are shown side by side on large screens; some joyously singing and dancing, others awkwardly mumbling. Playing simultaneously, this strange choir creates a humourous and fascinating cultural commentary. One can’t help but wonder about the lives of these Jackson fans and the stories behind their performances.

It’s no wonder that artists have been drawn to Jackson, enigma that he was. And whilst not everything in the show is brilliant, there are some impressive individual artworks and a general feeling of nostalgia that is intoxicating if your life was touched by Michael Jackson in any way, as the lives of so many were. The show is more about fame and obsession than it is about art, and the fact that one person could have such an impact on the planet means that 10 years after his death, people are still just as fascinated by him.

Review by Helen Buckley, Head of Arts, ARTIQ