Mariko Finch: This exhibition has been highly anticipated, and people everywhere are talking about it. What can visitors expect? It’s quite an unusual premise for an exhibition.
Nicholas Cullinan: It’s not the usual template of an exhibition around a musician, which is based on memorabilia or costumes, and this is quite unique, because it’s looking at Michael Jackson’s impact on contemporary art and artists. It is quite specific to him, in that no other figure has been depicted by this number and calibre of artists. You can’t repeat this formula, and so far, that seems to be being very well understood and received.
MF: Michael Jackson is iconic figure, universally recognised for his contribution to popular culture, music and fashion, and providing inspiration for numerous artists. Why did you decide it was time to mount this exhibition?
NC: I had the idea about ten years ago, even before he died, when I was working on another exhibition at Tate Modern, called Pop Life: Art in a Material World, which looked at Andy Warhol and his legacy. In doing the research for that exhibition, I began to realise how many artists from Warhol onwards had depicted or were drawn to Michael Jackson. I kept notes over the years as I discovered more.
When I came to the NPG it seemed like a very interesting project for a portrait gallery to think about, because of course, they are all portraits, even though many of these works radically expand our notion of what a portrait is. Part of our brief is to think about issues of identity, and what a figure such as Jackson means to different people. That seems like a very interesting and timely discussion for us to have.
MF: So what is it about his persona — and his image — that fascinates artists so much?
NC: When preparing for the exhibition, I either spoke to or interviewed all the artists. It came to light that Isaac Julien had written his thesis on Michael Jackson at Central St Martin’s. What’s interesting is how resonant he is for many artists in that they think of him as almost a fellow artist in terms of his own work and craft and artistry.
MF: There are more historic works in the exhibition, alongside newly-created works. Did you work closely with artists to deliver your vision?
NC: We didn’t go out to commission; it happened very organically. A number of artists said: “I would like to make something”. That happened, for example, with Michael Craig-Martin just a month before the show opened. I was doing a studio visit with him to discuss something else, and we got talking about the show, and he said he wanted to be involved. So the artists had very strong thoughts and feelings about him — but we didn’t try to guide or dictate what they would do.
The point is, this isn’t any one person's view of Michael Jackson, especially not mine; it’s 48 different views, which are quite varied, depending on someone’s background, perspective, nationality or their generation. And of course, the visitors will have many other views. What’s interesting to me is how this one person represents so many different things to different people.
MF: Michael Jackson was a controversial figure, in life and in death. What was the response when you suggested putting on this exhibition?
NC: When I showed my colleagues the works, even amongst the more historically grounded curators, there was a real interest and enthusiasm for the exhibition, because I think everyone could see the quality of the work. They could see this wouldn’t be just a throw-away celebrity show; it’s a very interesting prism to talk about the politics of identity. The response from the artistic community was tremendous. I think artists just get him and understand why he’s interesting, important, relevant, moving, timely and tragic — all at the same time. I was very curious what the public response would be, and it’s been very positive.
MF: For a man whose image was so widely recorded, is it fair to say there is a lot about the real Michael Jackson that is completely unknown?
NC: It’s not an exhibition that’s trying to avoid any of the more complex issues, but nor are we providing answers, for the simple reason that we don’t have them. I felt strongly it wasn’t our job to give priority to one view, but to allow people to have an intelligent and respectful discussion; because then it’s interesting. What’s not interesting is being adamant about something to do with his biography, when really, none of us know, and that’s the fascinating thing.
MF: You have worked closely with all of the artists in the show, and carefully selected each piece, but is there one piece in the exhibition that you are particularly drawn to?
NC: There are lots; and what’s nice about the show is that we, pretty early on, threw out all of the usual rules that you have for making a contemporary group show; because that’s really what this is. The theme is Michael Jackson, but if you took away the name and just had the same group of artists, it’s a very strong, interesting list.
I deliberately mixed together artists that would never normally be in a show together. For example, we have David Hammons alongside David LaChapelle. You’re never going to see them in the same show again, I would imagine. But here, not only does it make sense, it accurate and democratic. It’s invigorating to move between the different aesthetics; something which is much more political, and then something which is still political, but through a camp aesthetic. The other great thing was to discover artists I’d never heard of before.
MF: There are works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and David LaChapelle and Grayson Perry in the show. What about the lesser-known artists included? Have they broadened the conversation?
NC: Absolutely. The opportunity to show works of artists that have been side-lined, such as Susan Smith-Pinelo. One piece that really stands out for me is the piece by Hank Willis Thomas called Time Can be a Villain or a Friend, which is the found image from Ebony magazine in 1984 where they imagine, in 1984, what Michael Jackson will look like in the year 2000. They have age-progressed him to imagine what his future will be; and they say: “in the year 2000 Michael Jackson will have aged gracefully and will be a debonair African American man with many more fans than he now has currently.” I think that’s very poignant. What could have been.
The question I asked was: “is this an interesting depiction of Michael Jackson?” — “Is this an interesting portrait?” And if the answer was yes, in a way, the thesis was strong enough that I could show artists that are revered, and I could show artists that are less well known.
MF: Portraiture transcends mediums, cultures and time periods, and remains a constant presence in visual culture. Is selfie culture a natural progression of self-portraiture, or is there something more sinister about an image-obsessed society? — and crucially, where does portraiture sit within that?
NC: I think we’ve always had an interest in looking at people, and looking at faces — especially our own, whether in a mirror or a photograph; and that hasn’t changed. I think social media just maybe amplifies it. I only joined Instagram last year, but someone said to me: “I think as Director of the Portrait Gallery, you should probably be on Instagram. And actually, to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed it; it’s been a really positive thing.”
I love moving between periods.
Today, for example, I posted the ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. There is a direct line from the ‘Phoenix’ portrait on the second floor, to the David LaChapelle photograph of Michael, two floors down. Depiction never changes; only the circumstance around the making of those images does. The medium or the costume, or the politics or the history can change, but the actual drive to create the image never does.