Shoot­ing the con­trasts that Michael Jack­son em­bod­ied

Business Day - - LIFE -

Michael Jack­son was once an enigma. How­ever, even be­fore the flood of obituaries and think­pieces fol­low­ing his death in 2009, he had be­come all too ex­pli­ca­ble through a se­ries of cliché para­doxes.

First, he was a prodigy; then he was the boy who didn’t want to grow up. The son of an abu­sive fa­ther, he had prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ships with his own and oth­ers’ chil­dren, and he was re­peat­edly ac­cused of sex­ual mo­lesta­tion.

Jack­son was a phys­i­cal wonder whose danc­ing changed the chore­o­graphic land­scape, but whose body col­lapsed af­ter decades of mis­treat­ment. He was part icon, part freak show.

In the racial pol­i­tics of the US dur­ing the fi­nal decades of the 20th cen­tury, he was a fig­ure of black pride – yet the pro­gres­sive dis­tor­tion of his ap­pear­ance seemed to un­der­mine this.

I imag­ine that few peo­ple have a bet­ter sense of these con­tra­dic­tions than Todd Gray, who was Jack­son’s per­sonal pho­tog­ra­pher in the 1980s.

Gray draws on this ar­chive in Plu­ral­i­ties of Be­ing, over­lay­ing im­ages of Jack­son from that pe­riod with pho­to­graphs taken dur­ing two re­cent res­i­den­cies: at the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion’s Bel­la­gio Cen­tre on Lake Como and at the Nirox Foun­da­tion in the Cra­dle of Hu­mankind.

This cu­ri­ous con­junc­tion, a sort of vis­ual palimpsest, re­sults in some stark dis­par­i­ties – be­tween then and now, be­tween the US and SA.

With a few of the works in the “Flora Africanus” se­ries, the op­po­si­tion is al­most overde­ter­mined: set against the black-and-white monochrome of Jack­son on­stage, or among throngs of ad­mir­ers, we have the rich green of a tree, the pale yel­low-brown of win­ter grass, or the torso of a generic “African dancer”.

It ap­pears to be a sim­ple con­trast – the glam­our and clam­our of celebrity ver­sus the tran­quil­ity of na­ture or the au­then­tic­ity of tra­di­tion.

None­the­less, col­lec­tively these coun­ter­points achieve some­thing else al­to­gether. The cen­tral ef­fect of Gray’s tech­nique is to hide Jack­son. We see his face in frag­ments; it is par­tially or fully ob­scured. Some­times his limbs are dis­em­bod­ied. Some­times he dis­ap­pears com­pletely. Michael Jack­son be­comes, once again, in­ex­pli­ca­ble.

Along with the im­ages of Jack­son in a crowd or on­stage, Gray also in­cludes pho­to­graphs of his sub­ject in a more pen­sive mood. With a con­tem­pla­tive look in his eyes, he cuts an iso­lated and lonely fig­ure.

In such cases, Jack­son’s thoughts – or what we, like Gray, guess may be his thoughts – find their ob­jec­tive cor­rel­a­tive in net­works of tree roots. These roots, partly buried but partly ex­posed, sug­gest a (largely in­ac­ces­si­ble) com­plex­ity and depth to The King of Pop.

The mir­ror of a pol­ished ta­ble-top or still wa­ter in a pond re­minds us that we are only look­ing at pic­tures. We are not see­ing a “real” per­son.

Who was Michael Jack­son? To most of us, he was a man in a pho­to­graph or video first and fore­most — this was a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion of us recog­nis­ing him as an artist, singer, dancer.

Plu­ral­i­ties of Be­ing seeks to ques­tion “the role pho­tog­ra­phy plays in the trans­mis­sion of his­tory and cul­tural iden­tity”, ask­ing vis­i­tors “to re­think the in­her­ent value of the im­ages we con­sume”.

Gray’s meta pho­to­graphic re­flec­tions find their way di­rectly into the works, en­cour­ag­ing view­ers to con­sider the ben­e­fits and lim­i­ta­tions of try­ing to an­swer such ques­tions vis­ually. This philo­soph­i­cal mise en abyme finds its clear­est ex­pres­sion in Olympia (Study), which em­ploys a photo-within-aphoto to drive the transna­tional point home: an un­named – but pre­sum­ably South African – man is seen hold­ing a framed pho­to­graph of Jack­son.

In ad­di­tion to the pho­to­graphic ma­te­rial on dis­play, there is also a se­ries of char­coal draw­ings en­ti­tled My Life in the Bush (Of Ghosts). The ex­hi­bi­tion notes sug­gest that these are in­spired by Fran­cis B Nyam­n­joh’s book Drink­ing from the Cos­mic Gourd.

While the small cir­cles used as build­ing blocks ac­quire fa­mil­iar shapes and pat­terns, it is dif­fi­cult to con­nect them to the other half of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Un­like the enig­matic Jack­son, this rid­dle is not one that sus­tains the vis­i­tor’s in­ter­est.

/Plu­ral­i­ties of Be­ing, Gallery MOMO Jo­han­nes­burg (52 7th Av­enue, Park­town North), un­til Oc­to­ber 7.


CHRIS THUR­MAN Among stars: Olympia (Study) em­ploys a photo-within-a-photo to drive home a transna­tional point.

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