Shooting the contrasts that Michael Jackson embodied
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.