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The Many Masks of Michael Jackson: What Does Iconography of the King of Pop Mean in 2018?

On the eve of a major show at the National Portrait Gallery, considering the legacy of MJ in light of ‘Apeshit’ and fraught debates on Blackness

How does it feel when you’re alone and you’re cold inside?

Watching the video for Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow (1996) today is a haunting experience. Featuring Jackson at his most spectral, his extraordinary pallor and otherworldly features are highlighted by photographer Nick Brandt’s bleak black and white cinematography. The artist is a portrait of despair, a plaintive victim at his most forlorn – the promise of death (or worse, the lifelong agony of the unfairly persecuted) looms around every corner.

The song was written in the wake of accusations of child abuse made against Jackson; the viewer’s ability to emphathize may well depend upon on whether we regard him as a victim of abuse or a perpetrator (or both). I recently watched this video on repeat for days and am left with contradictory, disturbing thoughts – empathy, but also disgust at the things he was accused of, and a profound feeling of sadness. Such is his mastery of the affective – both vocally and lyrically. One cannot but feel.

Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain

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Isa Genzken, Wind (Michael / David), 2009. Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Courtesy of neugerriemschneider, Berlin; photograph: Jen Ziehe © Isa Genzken, VG-Bild Kunst and DACS, London 2018

Isa Genzken, Wind (Michael / David), 2009. Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Courtesy of neugerriemschneider, Berlin; photograph: Jen Ziehe © Isa Genzken, VG-Bild Kunst and DACS, London 2018

To contemplate the image of Michael Jackson in 2018 – particularly whilst experiencing a very different relationship with the epidermal manifestation of Blackness – is to enter into a state of mourning. Mourning for what could have been, mourning for how it all ended. (Is it not deeply disturbing that both Jackson and his contemporary Prince died ignobly, addicted to pain medication, so diminished physically after a lifetime of performance?)

The bright promise of a highly melanated, exploited childhood genius ending with the appearance of an abject ghost. I am reminded of a time when my nephew was very young and had to be convinced that there was only the Michael Jackson. He believed there were two – one with the ‘beautiful face’ and another one who looked very strange. This process of convincing took some time.

Mask of life, feelin’ insane.

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David LaChapelle, An Illuminating Path, 1998. Courtesy of the artist © David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle, An Illuminating Path, 1998. Courtesy of the artist © David LaChapelle

When Beyoncé lionizes her husband’s most African physical features by championing his ‘negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils’ in her song ‘Formation’ (2017), my mind returns to Jackson and the facial features – those reminders of Africa-past – he was encouraged (by his own father, by society) to hate. There is something restorative in the reclamation of the parts of him that were obliterated through self-erasure. To associate his family name with desiring that which is often hated, as opposed to hating that which one ought to (self) love.

Regardless of whether you are a fan or not, Beyoncé is an apt comparator, the closest cultural figure we have at this point to Jackson’s level of pop cultural relevance and global superstardom. Both demonstrate – perform even – the visible hard work that is supposed to make success possible for people from marginalized subjectivities; both carry before them echoes of Black Church in their musical arrangements; both demonstrate a complex, often contradictory, performative sexuality. (I always felt MJ made crotch grabbing seem like such a chore, but did it anyway, because we expected it.)

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Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, 1984. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. / Gift of Time magazine © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, 1984. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. / Gift of Time magazine © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

So, watching ‘Apeshit’, the new video by The Carters (Beyoncé and Jay Z) – a Black performance takeover of the Louve, featuring leotards, bling and Old Masters (more bling) – I can’t help but think about Jackson. The intersection of capitalism, commerce, performance and art history (via tropes of performative diasporic Blackness) as a vehicle for the monetization of personal suffering – life rehearsed in public, for consumption – is certainly post-Jacksonian.

‘Apeshit’ is fun, sure, and subversive in its own way – especially considering The Carters are themselves major art collectors. I can’t help imagine seeing Jackson – another art history enthusiast – in their place, reimagining the possibilities of the body amongst remnants of the past, among the treasures. I imagine there would be greater poetry, less braggadocio and a more affective connection to his public.

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Faith Ringgold, Who’s Bad?, 1998. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York. © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018 

Faith Ringgold, Who’s Bad?, 1998. Courtesy: ACA Galleries, New York © Faith Ringgold / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2018 

This insertion of diasporic Black bodies into spaces of high European art through performance (in this case a particularly African American style of popular performance with reference to Africa past, dancehall present and art future) is intimately connected to the advance of the music video and its possibilities as a form of visual art and as an event. Jackson was, of course, a pioneer of the medium, fearlessly expanding both its monumental and intimate power.

The surprise album, the unannounced video drop, the budget and production values of an independent Hollywood movie, the cross-cultural visual signifiers and choreography – all are a part of Jackson’s legacy, as well as of the legacy he inherited from vaudeville, the Chitlin’ Circuit, Broadway and beyond.

These concerns collide in the exhibition ‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’, which opens at London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) next week. The show, curated by NPG director Nicholas Cullinan, explores Jackson’s influence on contemporary artists from Marvin Gaye Chetwynd to David Hammond, Lorraine O’Grady, Isaac Julien and Andy Warhol, amongst others.

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Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road, Bedside Table, 2010–11. Courtesy: the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road, Bedside Table, 2010–11. Courtesy: the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie

Jackson is contextualized as a monumental avatar for the exploration of our fantasies, nightmares and politics, and as an artist who understood the awesome power of visual spectacle in building the individual as brand. As such, Jackson stakes his claim at immortality – in death his iconography remains relevant, but illusive.

We see Jackson take his place in the visual history of Black America (and therefore, the visual history of the United States as a whole), photographed alongside Don King by Andy Warhol (The Jacksons And Don King, 1983) or accompanied by the other ‘ambiguous role model’ Michaels (Tyson and Jordan) by David Hammons (Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like, 2001).

There are works on the afterlife of performance and on fandom. The wonder of the ‘beautiful face’ is exemplified by Hank Willis Thomas’s poignant re-appropriation of Ebony magazine’s prediction of Jackson’s appearance in 2020 (Time Can Be a Villain or a Friend, 1984/2009). (His skin is still brown; he is handsome. His eyes heavily lined with kohl, he resembles an earth-dwelling version of Billy Dee Willams’ Lando Calrissian).

Bodily transformation, gender presentation, religiosity, iconography are all in the mix. Jackson feels forever contemporary, forever complex and forever singular.

I’m living lonely baby.
A stranger in Moscow.

‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall’ opens at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on 28 June.

Main image: Mark Ryden, Dangerous, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

Sonya Dyer is an artist, writer and occasional curator based in London, UK.

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