Living on the wall: The weird, wild world of Wacko Jacko

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Living on the wall: The weird, wild world of Wacko Jacko

New London exhibition proves Michael Jackson’s whole life was a work of media-saturated performance art

Sam Leith

My seven-year-old son, Max, loves Michael Jackson. So does my 41-year-old wife. When we’re in the car and Alice is in charge of the music we get a near nonstop barrage, from the early sunny stuff he did with the Jackson Five (when he had that adorable spherical Afro) right up to the hard Thriller-era groove of Dirty Diana. When Max gets his paws on Spotify, mind you, it's straight to Heal the World, which I note, without comment, occupied first place in Vulture magazine’s All 147 Michael Jackson Songs Ranked From Worst To Best.
Here is an artist whose music crossed generations. My late granny probably loved him too. Even I have a soft spot – not least because Jackson’s mom was one of the first people to know when I got engaged. At the time, my wife was making a TV documentary about the improbable subject of Tito Jackson’s plans to move to Appledore in Devon, and Katherine Jackson turned up. I went down to visit, popped the old question, and the next thing I knew Ma Jackson was admiring the ring – “What a sparkler!” – and diplomatically neglecting to mention that the solitaire diamond probably wouldn’t have passed muster for a place on one of her younger son’s shoes.So we can expect to see doddering oldies and tiny tots alike queuing up when the National Portrait Gallery in London opens the doors on its wittily named Michael Jackson: On The Wall exhibition this month – imagery of and related to the performer that will stay in situ for four months before touring to France, Germany and Finland.
There is certainly no shortage of material. Jackson is a gift to the artist. His whole life was a work of media-saturated performance art. And since roughly the time that Jackson came to public attention in the 1970s, the fine art establishment has been deeply concerned with the transactions between money and art, with the iconography of celebrity, with the dissolving of boundaries across media, with the artist as performer, and with questions of agency, of craft and happenstance, of who’s pulling the strings or having them pulled. Jackson didn’t just represent all those things: he lived them.
So it’s quite appropriate that Jackson’s depiction in fine art started with Andy Warhol – another shy, eccentric, sexually opaque artist with a skin condition who made millions performing himself, and both sought and evaded scrutiny. Warhol first used Jackson’s image on a 1982 cover for Interview magazine and screen-printed him (in the Thriller jacket, with the Thriller hair) in 1984; adding him to a pantheon that included Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, tinned soup and Richard Nixon. Jackson, as Warhol noticed, was reproducible. And, according to the gallery, Jackson has been “the most depicted cultural figure in visual art” since first he attracted Warhol’s eye. It is hard to see how they arrived at that certainty, but I dare say it’s not far off being true.What about him doesn’t beg to be turned into art (or, more precisely, turned into art again)? The looks! A tilt of the hat; a single glove; the angle of a pair of shoes; the slash of black across a red jacket; the Ray-Ban aviators above a scarf pulled over the nose; the eyes on Mark Ryden’s painted sleeve for Dangerous; the bare silhouette of his Thriller-era hairdo; the blaze of his white socks on the LP sleeve of Off The Wall; even, by the end, the savage scare-quotes of his nostrils – a whole series of visual gestures make an unmistakable shorthand.
Jackson created that visual vocabulary. And the exhibition is stuffed with pieces that riff on it; as well as images of Jacko and Baudelaire, Jacko and Jesus, Jacko and Kurt Cobain; and images of images of Jacko – in Louise Lawler’s photographs of the installation of Jeff Koons’s sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. There’s the odd more lateral work, too, such as Susan Smith-Pinelo's 1999 video work Sometimes, which is a film of the artist’s cleavage jiggling to a Jacko tune and which, the catalogue tells us, “questions notions of black feminine identity in hip-hop culture”.And as much as Jackson created his own visual iconography in stage performance, promotional videos, photoshoots and album art (not to mention in the improvisational barrage of a billion paparazzi flashbulbs), he also performed a series of parallel transformations in his persona. Here was someone who straddled black and white identities (voluntarily, through plastic surgery; involuntarily, through the skin-whitening disease vitiligo), child and adult personas (the breaking and unbreaking of Jackson’s voice is discussed at length in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s superb essay on him, still available online, and Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, was a lodestar), and male and female ones. He performed an aggressive crotch-grabbing parody of male sexual aggression, but he sang like a girl and looked like an alien. As Sullivan put it: “His physical body is arguably, even inarguably, the single greatest piece of postmodern American sculpture.” And then there’s his place in the culture. Marrying Elvis’s daughter in 1994 looked a bit like one of those dynastic manoeuvres they went in for in the Habsburg Empire. Elvis was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and Jackson (in one of his less-cool moves) insisted that MTV call him King of Pop at least twice a day if it was to be allowed to play his videos.Now there is an elephant in the room – and this elephant is swigging from a bottle of what the late King of Pop would have called Jesus Juice held in its trunk. The publicity guff for the exhibition describes Jackson as “one of the most influential cultural figures” whose “impact and fame show no signs of diminishing”, before waffling on about “philanthropic achievements” and “cultural barriers overturned”. Nowhere among all this do the words “child abuse” appear, presumably on the grounds that this would totally kill the mood. But would you organise an exhibition of, say, Gary Glitter’s most wild and out-there, epoch-defining stage costumes without even mentioning it? Or a Jimmy Savile retrospective?The exhibition’s curator Nicholas Cullinan argues that these are false analogies: “If this were a Michael Jackson memorabilia exhibition it would be a different conversation. But this isn’t an exhibition about Michael Jackson: it’s an exhibition of 47 artists and the way they used him as a subject.” He sees the show as being about “art, artists, artistry and artifice”.
Yet a significant part of what Jackson means in the culture absolutely has to do with his unusual relationships with young boys. And, yes, he was never convicted in a criminal case; and, yes, there was no admission of guilt made when he settled the Jordy Chandler case for $23,000,000 in 1994. As a matter of public record, he is innocent until proven guilty. But the unresolved questions over his sexual behaviour and sexual self-presentation are a central part of his cultural meaning, and to duck them is to miss so much about the narrative frames – the abused child; the abused and likely abusing man; the media creation and the media self-creation – that make him so interesting.Duck them this exhibition does: the only mention in the catalogue (in a subsection emetically titled “A Tragic Beauty”) is a claim that Maggi Hambling and other British artists made work “in staunch defence” of Jackson at the time of his child molestation trial. Cullinan retorts that Jordan Wilson’s Neverland uses footage from the video of Jackson denying his guilt, and says: “All of these issues are referenced. He was exonerated, and people will always have different views about that. But I don’t think it’s our job to come up with a view – it’s about opening up a discussion.”One of the things, though, that Jackson’s career tells us about our relationship to art is that, in his case at least, we have a troubling tendency to hive the dark stuff off from the work – in a way we don’t with, say, Gary Glitter. We make that decision, it seems hard to deny, precisely because Jackson’s art seems so indispensable. He wasn’t just a great singer-songwriter and a ferociously precise dancer. He was, in that vulgarly overused term, an icon. So we'll go along to the exhibition. And it will be hashtag #problematic. But then, hashtag #problematic is what art is all about.
- © The Daily TelegraphMichael Jackson: On the Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery in London  from June 28 to October 21.

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