Michael Jackson: On the Wall @ Grand Palais, Paris, France.

As mentioned in the article I published in November on what were the exciting exhibitions to see in Paris, Michael Jackson: On the Wall was one of them. I saw it in December. It was amazing.

First, before going into reviewing the exhibition, I have to explain where my point of view is coming from. I am a huge fan of Michael Jackson. I discovered him as a kid thanks to my grand-mother who offered me the Number Ones DVD one year for Christmas and from that moment onwards, there has been no going back. I simply fell in love with his art, his character, his music, his dance, his looks, his energy, etc. I started to collect CDs, DVDs, but also other collector’s objects. It continued until his death in 2009. I then entered a period of mourning during which I did not listen to his music at all (when I used to almost every-day). It lasted for a while until I slowly went back into it. Today, my love for his art is back and strong but less obsessive than it used to be. That said, I am still a huge fan of Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall is a celebration of the singer. It is a collection of art pieces by artists whose work is associated with MJ in one way or another. Sometimes for his music, sometimes for his dance moves, sometimes for who he is, the entire exhibition celebrates what Michael Jackson was and still is in people’s minds. On the Wall starts with a painting of the singer as Philippe II, on his horse, proud and above all: the king to be adored (Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of Philippe II (Michael Jackson, 2010). It sets the tone. Then, the exhibition is organized in several themes. The first one: ‘A Legendary Dancer’, needs no explanation. Commissioned for the occasion, Rapahëlle Delaunay and Jacques Gamblin created a choreographic performance in which the dancer seems to imitate Michael Jackson inspired by her memories of his gestures : a danced representation of what every fan feels. Powerful.

The second theme, ‘The advent of the King of Pop’, discusses the moment when MJ went from child celebrity to world star with the albums Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982). I really like Off the Wall (x25) and Thriller (x20), two wall compositions by Graham Dolphin who, as said in the exhibition, ‘questions the fan world and the cult of idols and transforms the existing object handwriting MJ’s song lyrics onto it’. Then, ‘The King of Pop Art’ is the only part of the exhibition with some archive material: magazine covers, letters, articles, press releases. It presents the level of fame MJ accessed in the 80s, giving some relevant context to the pieces showcased in the exhibition. The first part of the exhibition now ends and one thing’s for sure: Michael Jackson is a world icon.

After a quick moment on ‘Metamorphosis’ about the brilliant Thriller music video, the exhibition goes on with ‘A citizen of the world’ presenting artworks about the influence of MJ on society, discussing subjects such as the construction of the black american identity and world poverty. Who’s Bad? by Faith Ringgold, inspired by the Bad music video, shows the singer in a street of New York City. The canvas is framed with padded textile on which is written the names of figures of the black community: Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, etc. Using narration, genre painting techniques and domestic craft, the artist denounces discrimination.

Faith Ringgold, Who’s Bad, 1988.

We then enter the ‘Icon and Idol’ part, playing around the bridges between the two notions. There are some famous artists exhibited there such as David LaChapelle and Catherine Opie but it is the moving-image installation by Candice Breitz which moved me the most. It is a sixteen screens installation showing fans singing every song of the Thriller album a capella. Every fan is living the music in his/her own way and it is magical to see them all at the same time. I connected to it right away because I could see myself doing this in my bedroom (and still doing it). I thought it was a nice way of showing the love fans can have for the music and for MJ. I felt emotional.

Candice Breitz, King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson), 2005.

Following this, ‘The Mask’ discusses how the face of Michael Jackson became itself a canvas, on which society writes its own concerns. The best example of this is the cover of the Dangerous album designed by Mark Ryden in 1991 which was recognized as an art piece in itself. Putting the face of the singer behind a mask full of diverse references: the Barnum circus, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Jerome Bosch, etc, it makes the singer an actor of the history of art and performance and a receptacle of popular culture.

Mark Ryden, “The King of Pop” (#135), 1991-2018.

Approaching the end of the exhibition, ‘Splittings’ and ‘Quotations’ show how artists have played around with the images of MJ, splitting his body in a video of one of his concert, putting him as a spectator of himself dancing or using famous photographs of the singer by Annie Leibotvitz to create a art piece that juxtaposes the singer and famous art history references (Léonard de Vinci). On the Wall concludes of what is, in my opinion, the best part of the exhibition: ‘Timeless’. Putting MJ in relation to other creators, evoking the death of the artist and what it means for society and culture, this last theme expresses the contradictions we could have noticed in the diverse representations of the star throughout the exhibition. Who’s MJ? Moreover, it highlights the romanticism and drama of some portraits of the artist. I really enjoyed this last room with some really interesting work. However, I am just going to mention Lorraine O’Grady’s work, which puts Michael Jackson in relation to Charles Baudelaire, in four diptychs, in different time of their career. On the cartel, the artist says:

‘They are, in my eyes, the two extremes of the same continuum, and not the representatives of two distinct modernisms. They lived the modern myth of the cursed artist until the end. (…) Charles was the first of the modernists and the last of the romantics, Michael was maybe the last of the modernists (no one, after him, will be able to aspire to this grandeur with this perfect lack of irony) but he maybe also was the first of the post-modernists. Will we ever know such symbol of globalization, pure product of the mercantile power?’

Michael Jackson: On the Wall is a fantastic exhibition. Surrounded by my idol over an hour and a half, I was just happy to be there. However, the exhibitions assumes MJ is exceptional and needs to be celebrated (it starts with a picture of the artist as a king). Therefore, as a visitor, you need to agree with this statement. If like me, you agree with it, you will love it; if not, I am not sure you should even go see it.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall at the Grand Palais until 14 February 2019.

Featured image: Mr. Brainwash, Michael Jackson, 2014.


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