Is Michael Jackson Really Alive?

Michael Jackson shows up again - in Finland

Before the traveling exhibition "Michael Jackson: On the Wall" reached its final stage at the end of August 2019 (until January 26, 2020) in the Espooer Museum of Modern Art (EMMA), it was in the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Grand Palais in Paris and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn pitched their tents.

However, England, France and Germany did not see what Finland could add to the 100 or so works by 48 leading contemporary artists that highlight the place of the late King of Pop in global culture.

Jackson's resurrection

Andy Warhol achieved another “15 minutes of fame” by portraying Michael Jackson. Photo courtesy of EMMA

“Michael” (2015) is an 18-minute film by Adel Abidin, an Iraq-born multimedia artist who has spent most of his work in Helsinki. At EMMA's decision, Abidin's short film was shown separately from the larger exhibition in the adjoining Areena Hall, an exhibition space for experimental and interdisciplinary art. He extends the myth of one of the most famous characters in the world by an additional, imaginative level of meaning.

Andy Warhol's Jackson exhibits may be the main attraction of the show, but Abidin's film connects, uncovering similarities in exploring fan culture, celebrity and icon worship.

The film opens with a series of television channels breathlessly reporting that Jackson has risen from the dead. When the news is confirmed, the Christ-like Jackson agrees to an interview with an Anderson Cooper lookalike, stating that the conversation is taking place in an empty New York television studio. The dialogue is broadcast on the imposing screens of Times Square, where tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans wait for the opportunity to ask questions of the resurrected star through a reporter present there.

A mentally tense Jackson hesitantly and cryptically answers questions about life after death and the meaning of life with lyrics from his songs, then leaves the studio via a staircase that leads down, hiding his face from the staff, and loosens finally in the Green Room in thin air.

Celebrities aren't always celebrated

In an interview that flickered across the screens in New York's Times Square, a mentally tense Jackson hesitantly and cryptically answers questions about the afterlife and the meaning of life. Photo from Adel Abidin's video "Michael (2015)"

Abidin received the Finland Prize in 2015 for his artistic work. His works can be found in public and private collections around the world, including Finland. Arja Miller, chief curator of EMMA, thinks that Abidin's film is a logical extension of the exhibition, whose portrayals of Jackson would not necessarily celebrate him.

The life and death of the legendary showman are known to be controversial. They not only harbored musical mega-celebrities, but also reprehensible things behind the scenes, including allegations of child abuse. "It was important for us that Jackson is not placed on a pedestal in the exhibition, but that his influence is explored as a cultural symbol," says Miller.

The 2,000 square meter exhibition, which received positive reviews in its first three stages, fits in well with EMMA, Finland's largest museum in terms of exhibition space. EMMA has summarized the original 12 themes of the exhibition into seven themes: "Cultural meaning", "Time capsule", "Afro-American identity", "The many facets of the following", "Behind the mask", "King of Pop" and "Body in Move". In addition to the Abidin film, EMMA added three new exhibits including an ironic golden fiberglass sculpture by well-known contemporary American artist Paul McCarthy depicting a clown-like Jackson holding a monkey.

The exhibition is arranged neither biographically nor chronologically, but presents Jackson through a broader cultural lens as an extreme example of talent, fame and obsession. Warhol banished him to the screen early on, in a somewhat innocent phase shortly after the huge success of "Thriller". Kehinde Wiley, on the other hand - known for his Barack Obama portrait hanging in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC - explores Jackson's megalomania by portraying Jackson as king on horseback, crowned by putti.

Enthusiastic fan cult, abstruse darkness

Jackson grants an interview to an Anderson Cooper lookalike in an empty New York television studio. Photo from Adel Abidin's video "Michael (2015)"

In addition to the lustful fan cult of everyday people who happily sing about Jackson's songs, there is an abstruse darkness of unrestrained, fragmented startums. In Jordan Wolfson's exhibit, we only see Jackson's eyes during a haunting video explanation filmed around the time of the child abuse allegations. Similar to Abidin's film, this reminds us strongly of the inner compulsion to build idols and tear them down again.

The focus of the exhibition is to move beyond Jackson's most loyal followers to a broader discussion on topics ranging from the absolute limits of fame to the really important things in life.

"The themes highlighted in the exhibition go beyond Michael Jackson," explains Miller. “Jackson is used in most of the works as a symbol through which the artists address various topics such as identity, gender, race, equality and fan culture. I believe that's what resonates with the wider public. "

Michael Jackson at EMMA

“American Jesus, hold me, carry me boldly,” by David LaChapelle Photo courtesy of EMMA

“Who’s bad,” by Faith Ringgold Photo courtesy of EMMA

"King," by Candice Breitz Photo courtesy of EMMA

Michael Jackson's portrait by KAWS for Interview magazine Photo courtesy of EMMA

“Nimes Road bedside table,” by Catherine Opie Photo courtesy of EMMA

“Equestrian portrait of King Philip II,” by Kehinde Wiley Photo courtesy of EMMA

“Dangerous,” by Mark Ryden Photo courtesy of EMMA

“An illuminating path,” by David LaChapelle Photo courtesy of EMMA

By Michael Hunt, September 2019

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