Friday, July 31, 2009

A brief list of things I learned from Julian Dashper

I was lucky enough to work with Julian Dashper several times over the years, and each time was an unforgettable experience. The most precise and exacting of artists in regards to the presentation of his work, he was also one of the most straightforward and delightful people I've ever worked with.

Over the past day, I've been thinking back over those times. Each project was characterised by a cluster of funny anecdotes (things that happened over the course of the project, as well as stories recounted by Julian about other projects). Each time I worked with Julian I went away with an increased confidence in the significance of public art galleries in bringing important work and ideas to public attention, and a series of valuable new reflections on curatorial practice and the workings of on-the-hoof art history. He was genuinely inspiring. I'll always remember a talk he gave to a bunch of high school kids about how he spent his day as an artist: he was just about mobbed afterwards by them, everyone wondering where they could sign up. While he'll be remembered chiefly by the extraordinary body of work he left behind, Julian's role as a teacher and mentor -- both formal and informal, variously of younger artists, curators, writers and public gallery staff -- shouldn't be underestimated.

As I wrote yesterday, I think the importance of Julian Dashper in shaping New Zealand's contemporary culture will become increasingly clear. It's already evident that someone of great significance has been lost to our culture.

Just for now, I want to make a brief list of some of the things I learned from him.

1. That the smallest details are worthy of consideration.
2. A different way to look at the relationship between form and content, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
3. That distance could be a strength and a source of distinction.
4. That contemporary art and popular culture aren't positioned at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum but instead run parallel to one another.
5. The evergreen coolness of Al Hunter.
6. The importance of collaboration between artists and writers.
7. That the placement of a semicolon can be of critical importance.
8. To wear my Noconas with pride.
9. That it's always all about the details.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Julian Dashper

I learned this morning of the death of Julian Dashper with great sadness. He was not only one of New Zealand's most important artists, he was also a warm-hearted, hilariously funny, and optimistic person who quietly opened the door for so many others. The New Zealand art world will be a poorer place without Julian in it, and I expect the exact nature of his significance as an artist and a thinker will become increasingly apparent in the time ahead.

Just for now, I'm looking again at this great list Julian made four or five years ago of all his favourite things, and I'm thinking of him.

(More here.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Clowns to the left of me

One of the issues with relational aesthetics that I've been thinking about is that its practices are frequently run like a science experiment where no data is collected. Interventions are made: a scenario is set up; an artist places an object or a gesture or an opportunity into the public milieu, and often that's sort of where it ends. Art people go to see the work; the general public might bump into it. But what do the passersby think about what they've seen? In a work that's essentially about the formation and expression of social relationships, how do people really relate to what they've experienced? If there's a catalogue then maybe some passing observations about public interaction are noted for posterity, but I've often thought I'd like to know about the audience response to this kind of public work in far more depth. It seems like the point, really.

For example, a few months ago when I went to see Thomas Hirschhorn's Poor-racer, one of the works in the national One Day Sculpture series, I wished I'd had the guts to ask the plump guy in nylon shorts and a curly mullet I saw there -- more of a car enthusiast than an art one, by the looks, though I'm repeatedly told it's quite wrong to make such sweeping generalisations -- what he thought about the work. Did it seem like an imaginative way to pimp a vehicle, or a bit of a useless one? Had Hirschhorn got the details right, or was it riddled with errors that only the initiated could see? And what did he think about an artist making an artwork about car modification? Did he see it as a piss-take or a homage? Or something else entirely?

With this on my mind, although it might be stretching it a bit to call it relational aesthetics, I was interested to read about Decider's decision to send three real-life card-carrying clowns to view Bruce Naumann's Clown Torture installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, and to record their responses in real time (via Art21 and Bad at Sports).

'We’re probably deserving of this treatment,' said one of the clowns, and how right she was.

I believe I've mentioned before that clowns are no friends of mine. I dislike them even more than street theatre performers and people dressed in rabbit suits handing out chocolate eggs in the supermarket. 'Don't make eye contact!' I hiss to the small guy but it is always too late: we have to stop and watch the capering antics of some dick in a fur suit in order to get away with the crappy chocolate prize. To my mind, it's simply not worth it. (Clowns I put in the same unspeakable category as the supermarket menagerie, with an added fear factor. They really are creepy, and it's not just that Stephen King book I read aged 14.)

A public gallery should bring Naumann's Clown Torture to New Zealand. I would like to see it very much, and would consider it a bit of own back for all I have suffered at their enormous rubber hands.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What we don't do

The first week of the school holidays, it rained. And the baby had a cold. We were like caged lions prowling around a pen, thoroughly bored with the unchanging scene and, it must be said, with one another's company from time to time. It seemed that everything interesting the small guy thought of to do, an adult would forbid. And when an adult thought of something to do, that happened to be the exact thing that no one much fancied doing right at that moment.

But the small guy, ever resourceful, sat down and spent a couple of happy hours compiling a list of Wild and Dangerous Deeds. Here's his personal guide to the Things We Don't Do.

1. Riding a bike off a cliff.
2. Running with scissors off a cliff.
3. Microwaving an egg.
4. Jumping off a high diving tower.
5. Sleeping in a roller coaster.
6. Sleeping on a ferris wheel.
7. Saying you stink to a bully.
8. Jumping out the window.
9. Playing cricket in the street.
10. Sleeping on the windowsill.
11. Surfing in the sewer.
12. Walking on the fence.
13. Touching your nose to the hose.
14. Climbing up a tall building.
15. Jumping off the Grand Canyon.
16. Eating a fly.
17. Eating a dynamite sandwich.
18. Eating a bug.
19. Using the clothesline as a flying fox.
20. Eating a poo. [Bit desperate, this one. Just to bring the count up to the round 20.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sensitive and meaningful

Although -- cough cough -- some of my dearest friends are poets, and I'm a fairly keen reader of poetry, I have no tolerance at all for spoken word poetry. None. My essential problem is with the poetry voice. I have found myself for various reasons (none of them to do with personal enjoyment) at many poetry readings over the years, where the poet -- who five minutes earlier may have been imparting a scurrilous description of a mutual enemy, or likewise something quite normal -- takes the mike and suddenly starts declaiming in the poetry voice, coming over all sensitive and meaningful. On what was possibly the most memorable such occasion I have attended*, they did it in the Russian language. большое and до свидания, as we Russians joyfully say!

However, in my usual spirit of easy-going glasnost, as it's Poetry Day in New Zealand today, I thought I would share a few verses of my favourite-equal New Zealand poem**, James K. Baxter's Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works, written following his dismissal after three weeks' indifferent work at the Chelsea Sugar Refinery in Auckland in 1969. This poem contains the two greatest lines in the history of New Zealand poetry. (I imagine it will be apparent to the sensitive reader which lines I am referring to.) I have found the sentiment expressed in them a particularly useful maxim for working in public art galleries.

Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works

Oh in the Stonegut Sugar Works
The floors are black with grime
As I found out when I worked there
Among the dirt and slime;
I think they must have built it
In Queen Victoria's time.

I had the job of hosing down
The hoick and sludge and grit
For the sweet grains of sugar dust
That had been lost in it
For the Company to boil again
And put it on your plate;

For all the sugar in the land
Flows through that dismal dump
And all the drains run through the works
Into a filthy sump,
And then they boil it up again
For the money in each lump.


When the head chemist came to me
Dressed in his white coat
I thought he might give me a medal
For I had a swollen foot
Got by shovelling rock-hard sugar
Down a dirty chute.

But no: 'I hear your work's all right,'
The chemist said to me,
'But you took seven minutes
To go to the lavatory;
I timed it with my little watch
My mother gave to me.'

'Oh thank you, thank you,' I replied
'I hope your day goes well.'
I watched the cold shark in his eye
Circling for the kill;
I did not bow the head to him
And so he wished me ill.


The men who sweep the floor are men
(My story here must end);
But the clerk and the slavedriver
Will never have a friend;
To shovel shit and eat it
Are different in the end.

James K. Baxter

* The launch of the excellent Landfall 213, edited by Jacob Edmond, Gregory O'Brien, Evgeny Pavlov and Ian Wedde.
**The other best poem in NZ literature is of course Jenny Bornholdt's
'Then Murray Came'.

Abject robot

No. 1 in an occasional series of accidental public artworks: Ronnie van Hout's Failed Robot sticker grinning up from the concrete floor of the Christchurch Art Gallery's underground carpark.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The small guy reviews et al

'It's got a floor thing, and you can go on it, and it's all white. There are lines. Daddy and I pretended we were in a maze. It was a lot of fun.'

The small guy on et al's installation that's obvious! that's right! that's true! which opened last night at the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The psychopathology of everyday life no.22

This morning, when proofreading an essay, I found that I'd accidentally written 'art shitorians'.

I immediately thought of Freud's dictum that all errors are products of the subconscious. 'They have a meaning and can be interpreted,' he said, 'And one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions.'

Or perhaps not so repressed, in my case.

The accidental curator

When you work with artists and collections for a while, you inevitably get to thinking about them in a certain way. This artist belongs with that one, you think to yourself; these works are part of this school; these ideas are the particularly interesting ones; and you go about your business accordingly. It's not really a bad thing: not so much a prescribed way of thinking but more like an intuitive shorthand based on experience.

However, I really enjoy the kind of accidental curation that arises from looking at works of art in informal situations. Some of the best ideas come from just prowling about looking at works and constructing unlikely relationships between them. The painting racks in the art stores of public galleries, where the only principles of selection and juxtaposition are the relative sizes of works -- accommodating the largest number of works into the smallest safe space possible. These ordered but essentially haphazard spaces are a great source of random curation, in which a Woollaston might be hung cheek-by-jowl with a Rohan Weallans, or a Frances Hodgkins next to a Julian Dashper.

Recently I noticed a particularly pleasing example of random curation on our dining room mantelpiece, where we tend to put things that we want to look at for a week or so. On the left is a reproduction of Tony Fomison's Detail for a Dancing Skeleton (1970), from Art + Object's auction calendar for 2009. On the right is a postcard from rival auction house Webb's, featuring Don Binney's Kotare over Hikurangi (1965). Beyond very broad historical principles, I would never generally think to relate the two artists' work, and hadn't noticed the anthropomorphic face shape in the landform of Don Binney's painting until I put it next to the Fomison.

On the other side of the mantelpiece, Tony de Lautour's hand-screened catalogue cover from his recent show at the Physics Room accidentally on display next to the Dali invitation card has -- beyond the enjoyably silly formal relationship of the lightning bolt and the moustache -- has opened up a new avenue for me to think slightly differently about de Lautour's work in terms of pranksterish surrealism.

One of the best sources for random acts of curation are auction catalogues. Some of the strangest juxtapositions of works are thrown up on their pages; so wonderful, sometimes, that it's hard to know if they are genuinely random or are an inventive curatorial outlet for the auctioneer. (I must ask one!) I enjoyed this page of works incorporating disrupted grids from Art + Object's 'Second Important Paintings 2009' catalogue. Again, two artists whose works I wouldn't usually think to put together. (Allen Maddox's Grid (1982) and Lozenge (Blue) (1997) with Richard Killeen's Frontal Lobe (1998).)

And, from the Webbs' catalogue, another couple of unlikely bedmates (though I would have been horribly tempted to put the Ted Bullmore on a page with the Ava Seymour photograph below. Thankfully, the auctioneers' good sense and taste prevailed.) (These are Edward Bullmore's Astroform no.13 (Bliss) (c.1967) and Callum Innes's Exposed Painting Red Violet Yellow Oxide Charcoal Black (2003), from Art + Object.) Makes me think, once again, what an incredibly interesting painter Bullmore was.

However, looking at the spread below, I find it impossible to believe that the auctioneer, or perhaps the catalogue designer, placed these two photographic works together randomly. (Ava Seymour's Yellow Oval Room (1994), and John B. Turner's La Patisserie (1972/8), at Webbs.)

But I think perhaps the most enjoyable of all these random acts of curation I've seen lately is the page layout below from the Webbs' 'Important Works 2009' catalogue, juxtaposing Tony de Lautour's Display (2004) against Milan Mrkusich's Painting Indigo 1969. It's hard to know whether this odd comparison best positions de Lautour's work as colourfield abstraction with some doodley bits added, or Mrkusich's as a ground ready to receive the projection of personal content. Actually, it's probably both. And that's why I love these random acts of chance curation: they add immeasurably to one's perception of the almost boundless ability of good art to take on different resonances in different contexts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Revisionist western: 'I am sick of killing bandits'

As I have been known to remind him from time to time, the big guy is a very lucky man indeed: and one of the ways his good luck is manifest is to be married to someone as keen on westerns as he is. Blame it if you will on all those winter afternoons in our respective childhoods stuck in front of Bonanza, The Virginian and High Chapparal, and in my case the endless John Wayne seasons on the BBC during school holidays. 'Get on your horse pilgrim...'.

I think of my personal graduation from spaghetti to revisionist westerns in the 1980s (though actually we're not fussy these days: either will do) as marked by a shift from dust to mud, from the tumbleweed shoot-em ups of John Ford and Sergio Leone to the mud-splattered 'realism' of Sam Peckinpah on TV and Jim Jarmusch at the movies. Moving quickly past such lightweight excursions into the territory as Young Guns and Unforgiven, we arrived, some years ago, at what the big guy and I both regard as the final unbeatable high noon of the revisionist western genre; the single best show ever made for TV, the mighty Deadwood: vast tranches of mud and grit, buckets of gore, volleys of swearing of an almost operatic nature, corpse-eating pigs, corrupt big business and politics pitted against reluctant law enforcement, and a mother-lode of anti-heroes.

Now it seems the small guy has inherited his parents' fondness for epics of dust, blood, gold and tumbleweed: his latest book is titled Super Sheriff and the Stupid Sombrero Gang. In it I think he's been able to quite neatly incorporate many of the significant tropes of the revisionist western.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


A few of my favourite things: some quotable lines I've come across in the past few days. (Now I need to engineer the opportunity to use them.)

1. Don't we all...
"He gets into trouble with freestanding sculpture or easy narratives using animal life, tribal figures or women’s orifices."

New Zealand's hardest-working art critic John Hurrell, on Rohan Weallans's new show 'Rogue', at Ivan Anthony.

2. The Judi Dench 'fiddler's fuck' factor
"Almost every time Dame Judi swears in a film, regardless of its category, we can expect a number of complaints."

The British Board of Film Classification, on an unprecedented trend among whingers with too much time on their hands.

3. Bruce Naumann on the kind of art he'd like to make:
Art that's “like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck.”

4. Gilbert and George: on politics
"I'm nothing, but George is a Conservative," says ­Gilbert. "Strangely, that's completely acceptable with any taxi driver, any waiter, but not in the art world," says George. "For them, left equals good. Art equals left." Gilbert adds: "They believe in equality. We don't. We want to be different."

On having their stove removed from their flat
"We used to have a stove, but it was taken away." Why? "Because it wastes so much time, shopping and washing up, disposing of waste. We keep our brains for the more important things. We only have an electric kettle."

How they spend their time:

'Their day starts at 6am. Breakfast is in their favourite café at 6.30am; from 7am to 5pm they work, and then watch a "soothing" episode of Midsomer Murders before dinner in the same Kurdish restaurant in Dalston that they have visited nightly for 30 years. Their house is kitchenless, to save time-wasting and mess. "We cannot do any work at all," says Gilbert, "if there is even a minuscule spot of mess."'

(I will consider awarding a small chocolatey prize to the first person to email me with the name of the New Zealand public art gallery director who similarly removed the stove from his apartment, to my eternal admiration.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In rooms

When the old guy down the road moved out, the wreckers were there within days. The rooms he'd lived in for 45 years were reduced to matchwood within a matter of hours. In the morning the house -- nothing fancy, a rendered 1930s bungalow -- was still standing: by afternoon knock-off it was a pile of splintered plasterboard and broken timber in the middle of the section. The demolition crew left their bulldozer parked snugly beside the heap, its arms raised in victory like Liberty leading the people over the barricades. The next day, along with a portaloo delivery, a couple of heavy duty trucks arrived and took away the rubbish. The house was gone.

There was something indescribably sad about all this. The house was nothing much, and though I fear a neo-Tuscan mansion with triple garaging will rise in its place (the developer's threat to build 'stylish homes' emblazoned on the gate placard fills me with dread), I won't really miss it. I was watching as the power shovel smashed down the exterior wall facing the street and exposed the rooms inside. I'd never been inside the house, but as the machine raised its arms to deliver the deathblow suddenly I was looking at the faded wallpaper and swirling bathroom vinyls the old guy had lived with every day for all those years, his private rooms exposed to merciless public view. I felt terribly prurient for looking. It felt a bit like watching a car crash, at once compelling and abhorrent. The privacy of the house -- the thing that made it a home, rather than just a building -- had been torn apart. What for years had been hidden from public view had become a violent spectacle, then a pile of rubble, then empty ground.

Immediately afterwards it was as if the house -- and the man who had occupied it for nearly five decades, who'd seen several generations come and go and grow up around him on the street -- had never existed at all. The people who move into the new house won't know that a huge dark red camellia once grew in the front garden, nor that the path to the front door curved through the lawn like a serpent, nor that an old man with one leg used to wait near the gate on warm afternoons in his electric wheelchair and raise his hand in greeting to neighbours. It's the way of things, I guess: perhaps particularly in a new-ish country like New Zealand, and perhaps most particularly in Christchurch, which seems to be continually razing itself to the ground and starting again. The old gives way to the new, and history disappears in a heap of rubble on the back of a truck. I'm writing this down so I don't forget.

(In the sort of strange sychronicity of content and affect that the internet increasingly seems to deliver, I came across this blog post the other day devoted to the architectural ghosts of old rooms. It did the job for me. I couldn't bear to take a photo of the old guy's house coming down, though at top above I've pictured one of the trucks which took it away.)

We went to see the Ronnie van Hout show at the Christchurch Art Gallery in the weekend, and I was thinking a lot about rooms while I was there. So many of Ronnie's works seem to be concerned with the memory of specific rooms, and of the psychological effects of enclosed familar spaces. There's something very strange and haunting about his room-based works, a sense of an actual inner world made visible, of the past reconstructed in the present. His father's shed, which Ronnie reportedly saw inside for the first time only after his father's death, has been the subject of a couple of major works -- the twin sheds installed on the roof terrace at Te Papa, as well as a temporary installation on the forecourt outside the Christchurch Art Gallery a couple of years ago.

Ronnie van Hout, A loss, again, 2008, at Te Papa. Image via Darren Knight Gallery.

The current survey show -- quite brilliantly put together, alternately tense and hilarious -- includes the wooden models of his old school and family house, with a tiny video screen of the artist flickering in the windows. There's a fantastically eerie new work inspired by his trip to Antarctica, in which a life-sized dummy of the artist dressed in parka and snow goggles sits alone inside a kind of white viewing chamber, a thin rivulet of blood running from his nose. Peering through a window at him, I felt as if my breathing were instantly being measured and constricted. Even the tiny banana-man model seems trapped inside his airless perspex display case, holding a minute 'help me' placard.

Somewhere about the middle of the show, a wall appears to be entirely empty: it's only on close inspection that a small peephole becomes visible. Through the peephole is a secret room, with two genderless figures, slightly desiccated, on what looks like a doctor's couch, one naked. Un-signposted and easily capable of being missed by visitors, the secret room is entirely closed in by vast temporary walls which reach to the ceiling. It comes as a complete surprise, and somehow, within the architecture of the space, seems impossible. But it's there.

The changing spaces of art galleries always interest me. I like going into a familar gallery space and being bamboozled by a new installation, finding the gallery's architecture altered beyond recognition by the repositioning of temporary walls, so that my memory of other visits to earlier shows is entirely disrupted. The reconfiguration of architecture for the display of art seems entirely as it should be.

Equally, it's interesting to think about the accumulated histories of other artworks that have hung or been installed on the same walls before. Visiting City Gallery Wellington, I've looked at works displayed in the big downstairs gallery and thought about where the paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne were hung when the Stedelijk show came to town; at Waikato Museum, I've wondered if the ghost of Simon Morris's big monochrome wall painting ever floats up though the dozens of layers of gallery white acrylic which now sandwich it to the wallboard; at Peter McLeavey's, I've looked at the hundreds of filled nail-holes on the scarred walls and wondered which were the ones that held McCahon's 'Scared' paintings in the mid-1970s; at the old Robert McDougall Art Gallery, where it was easier to install a temporary wall complete with faux wooden dado in front of Petrus van der Velden's Dutch Funeral than it was to take the massive work down, I've enjoyed secretly knowing that the big gloomy painting was still glowering away behind the wall a couple of feet away.

I've realised that some of my favourite works deal with the ghosts of old rooms: I suspect it's a hangover from having moved around so much as a small child.

Here's Rachel Whiteread's Ghost (1990), a concrete cast of an entire room displayed at the Tate.

Edward Hopper's Western Motel, 1957, from the collection of Yale University Art Gallery (Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, via )

And an evocation of a lost room by the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, who spent a lot of time alone in rooms remembering more congenial times in other rooms:

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—-no, opposite—-a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window was the bed;
the afternoon sun fell across half of it.

...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only... And then—
that week became forever.

(From C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. Via

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The wee pool of terror: It was not fun

In recent weeks, the small guy has become a great fan of Captain Underpants. Anyone with small boys at home may now jump two paragraphs, but for the rest of you: Captain Underpants is a seemingly endless series of novels for junior readers in which two nine-year-olds, George and Harold (who spend their days drawing comics and sneaking into the school office to make hundreds of photocopies to sell to their schoolmates), accidentally turn their school principal Mr Krupp into a superhero. When Mr Krupp hears anyone snapping their fingers, he becomes Captain Underpants and gets into a great mess of trouble, pursued by George and Harold: he only turns back into Mr Krupp again when water is poured on his head.

Featuring superheroes, idiotic behaviour, fart jokes, baddies getting their come-uppance in the end, and enormous Y-fronts used as significant plot devices, I presume the target readership for Captain Underpants is predominantly male. (But there may well be girls who like that sort of thing too, you never know.)

In a neat example of art following life, the small guy has recently produced his own comic book version of the Captain Underpants legend, to accompany such existing titles as Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, and so on. He's working on it during rainy lunchtimes with a friend and its pictures haven't all been completed yet, so I reproduce just the narrative below.

Captain Underpants and the Wee Pool of Terror

Harold and George are bad.
It was at the pool. Wee was in it.
'Aha!' said Mr Krupp. 'I got you two.'
Click! He snapped his fingers.
'Oh no!' said George.
It was Captain Underpants. Their wee was in the pool.
'OK, got him,' said Harold.
Oh no! Captain Underpants went in the pool.
'Ah! I am in the pool! Help!' he said.
Mr Krupp was mad. They had to do extra homework. It was not fun.
'I hate school,' they said.
The End.

As chance would have it, I have been reading psychiatrist Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a vastly influential tirade connecting comic books with juvenile delinquency which became the central platform for the moral panic against comics which swept the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand during the mid-1950s (the precursor to later moral panics about milk-bars, TV, horror films, heavy metal music, computer games etc etc). Wertham described comics as a 'bacillus' and noted an insidious 'comic book syndrome' which adversely affected the psychology of many children under his care. While he really went to town on the adverse effects of the true life crime and romance comics which were popular in the 1950s, in his opinion even the good-guy superheroes destroyed the fabric of society: 'Psychologically Superman undermines the authority and the dignity of the ordinary man and woman in the minds of children.'

Hate to think what Frederick Wertham would have made of 'the wee pool of terror'.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Older than Elvis

The big guy said something interesting the other day. (I should stress that this event in itself isn't the point of this post: he is often quite interesting, both on and off his specialty subjects.) We were talking about the extraordinary outpouring of emotion on Twitter and in the old media about the death of Michael Jackson. I was quite surprised about it, probably because I haven't thought anything he'd sung since Billie Jean is much chop. The big guy, however, pointed out that I'm swimming against the stream of 750 million album sales, which would mean that quite a lot of people do think Michael Jackson is reasonably good.

So then I thought about the celebrity deaths which have been meaningful in some way to me.

1. Elvis 1977
2. John Lennon 1980
3. Ian Curtis 1981
4. Princess Diana 1997 (cough cough; no excuse for this really)

And of these, of course, the greatest and most significant was Elvis.

'Do you think Michael Jackson was the black Elvis?' I asked the big guy, and also put it out for consideration on Twitter: the answer from both sources was a resounding no. In a royal smackdown between the King of Rock 'n Roll and the King of Pop, 'Presley', as my father always referred to him, would take care of business on all fronts.

When I wondered aloud if the estimable Harry Hutton might be correct in his assessment that 'Michael Jackson touched the hearts of simpletons everywhere', ('No display of ass-hattery will be judged excessive in the coming days. If Blair himself read a prayer at Jackson's funeral then led the congregation in an embarrassing dance, I would hardly wince'), the big guy suggested that it was more likely to be an age thing. 'People affected by Michael Jackson's death are too young to remember Elvis's,' he said.

Comparisons, though odious, are also quite interesting as well as being good money-spinners for hack writers, and someone's bound to do a fine job pulling together all the links between Elvis and Michael Jackson: the entourages, the crazed shopping sprees, the prescription medicines, the odd relationship with food, the physical wreckage, Lisa-Marie.

Michael Jackson certainly had the comparison in mind. I came across this sad quote from his 1998 memoirs: 'The way Elvis destroyed himself interests me, because I don't ever want to walk those grounds myself.' Which is just inviting any number of sappy feature articles lambasting the cruelty of the global capitalist celebrity mincer machine and referring to butterflies broken on the wheel, candles in the wind, etc etc. (In the midst of all the emoting, however, I was pleased to hear that Bubbles the chimp is doing it easy 'listening to flute-and-guitar music' away from the media spotlight at a sanctuary in sunny Florida. Damn shame someone who cared about him couldn't have got Michael Jackson to one, as well.)

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. Ceramic.

In 1988 Jeff Koons made a large-scale porcelain sculpture immortalising both Michael Jackson and Bubbles, who was then a very young chimp. Interviewed by Farah Nayeri, Koons commented on this morning: 'I wanted to show Michael as a contemporary Christ figure: I wanted to give the viewer a sense of a spiritual authority. The type of adulation, the type of support that’s given to pop artists -- this was the contemporary type of support that I thought that Christ would have received in his time.'

Now that I am considerably older than Jesus, the next big birthday milestone will be the Older than Elvis birthday. I can't imagine a similar marker point at 50, the final age of Michael Jackson, but you never know.