MJ Studies Today XXII

Abstract: In her October column, Kerry discusses art exhibitions that concern Michael Jackson. Artists from around the world are inspired by Michael Jackson and the National Portrait Gallery will exhibit numerous artists next summer.

Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, and administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group, Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts.


Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today XXII (14-10-2017).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 4, no. 2 (2017). http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xxii/.

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Pictures at an Exhibition: artistic expressions of the cultural impact of Michael Jackson, Part 1: Ballarat and London.  By Kerry Hennigan

© Kerry Hennigan

Recent events in the realm of the arts have highlighted the visible ways in which Michael Jackson has impacted popular culture in fields other than music and choreography. I witnessed an example of this firsthand when I visited the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) in the city of Ballarat, Australia, in September 2017. Ballarat, whose settlement origins lie in the Victorian gold rush of 1851-1860s, is a city that today prides itself on its arts and culture, and organisers of BIFB17 secured a large selection of photographic art by David LaChapelle as the festival’s headline exhibit. It was the first time LaChapelle had exhibited in Australia. [1]

LaChapelle’s three religious-themed photographic portraits representing Michael Jackson (played by impersonator Carlo Reilly with some digital manipulation by LaChapelle) featured prominently in the exhibition. Though these pieces are generally well-known to fans, their inclusion in the BIFB exhibition gave first-time viewers reason to pause and ponder the photographer’s use of classic symbolism to portray Michael Jackson in a religious context. “The cult of celebrity and the controversy that surrounded Jackson in both life and death contribute to the viewers’ interpretation, together with the religious symbols of life, death, good and evil” read the description for the image titled “Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer.” [2]

It has since been announced that LaChapelle (a self-confessed MJ fan who photographed Paris Jackson for Rolling Stone magazine) is to be one of more than 40 artists, including new and emerging artists across all media, whose work will feature in a ground-breaking exhibition to be titled “Michael Jackson: On the Wall.” This exhibition will open 28 June 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London in collaboration with the Estate of Michael Jackson and will run until 21 October 2018, then tour Paris, Bonn and Finland respectively over a 12 month period. [3]

This is an exciting development. The inclusion of images like LaChapelle’s Michael Jackson trilogy and others featured in exhibitions in the years since Michael’s passing have already sown the seeds for increased recognition and appreciation of Michael’s impact on popular culture as explored by a variety of artists working in various media. Now, the high profile “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” exhibition will focus considerably more attention on him as a subject worthy of serious artistic consideration and interpretation.

The NPG announcement, repeated across news feeds and art blogs, noted that “Jackson is one of the most influential cultural figures to come out of the 20th century and his legacy continues into the 21st century. His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, music videos, dance, choreography and fashion, but his impact on contemporary art is an untold story; one that has not been recognised with an international loan exhibition such as this.” [4]

Michael Jackson, we are told, “has become the most depicted cultural figure in visual art by an extraordinary array of leading contemporary artists since Andy Warhol first used his image in 1982.” Warhol’s portrait of Michael is one of the pieces to be featured in the exhibition, along with LaChapelle’s “An Illuminated Path” and Kehinde Wiley’s mammoth “Equestrian portrait of King Phillip II (Michael Jackson).”

There will also be an accompanying scholarly publication featuring essays by Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Margo Jefferson and Zadie Smith. All the artists included – despite coming from different generations and parts of the world, and employing a range of media – are fascinated by what Jackson represented and what he invented. It is rare that there is something new to say about someone so famous, but here that is the case,” said Dr Cullinan, who is the Director of the NPG.

Cullinan perceives that “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” will open new avenues of thinking about art and identity, encourage new dialogues between artists and invite audiences interested in popular culture and music to engage with contemporary art. “Like its subject, we hope this exhibition will be inclusive in appeal, uncompromising in artistic integrity and in the process, break down barriers,” he added. [5]

The prestigious housing of the exhibition, plus the established reputations of some of the artists involved, flies in the face of critics who continue to trivialise Jackson’s work and make fun of his persona. They obviously haven’t been paying attention, as should have become apparent when earlier this year David LaChapelle appeared in a short video promoting an exhibition on the work of Michelangelo and Sebastiano at The National Gallery in London. In it he talked about “pop art” which he defined as art that has crossed over from being for the very few to being for everyone – and used as examples Michelangelo’s David “or something from Michael Jackson’s catalogue.” [6]

It’s a comparison that would have surprised many, but none more than Jackson’s critics. It will be interesting to see what kind of public response there is to the exhibition once it opens (tickets have already gone on sale via the NPG website). [7]

“Michael Jackson: On the Wall” could prove to be the greatest shown in London, with fans and art aficionados travelling from far and wide to view it. I hope to be one of them, and I certainly don’t expect to be alone.

Kerry Hennigan

October 2017


[1]       BIFB17 official website https://ballaratfoto.org/

[2]       As photographed by the author at the LaChapelle exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, September 2017.

[3]       https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/michael-jackson-on-the-wall/exhibition

[4]       http://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/2651-michael-jacksons-influence-on-art-explored-in-london-exhibition

[5]       Ibid.

[6]       The ‘Pop Art’ of Michelangelo and Michael Jackson (as defined by LaChapelle) https://wordpress.com/post/kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/894

[7]       https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/michael-jackson-on-the-wall/exhibition

“Sowing seeds” photographed and edited by Kerry Hennigan, September 2017.