The Sculptural Bodies of Michael Jackson


Screenshot from “Scream” video, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Epic Records, 1994

by Francesco Tenaglia

It only lasts for a moment. Not a glutinous efflorescence, or a spooky appearance fit to star in choreography from the good ol’ days. The sluggish shadow slippers from one room to another in the private wing of Neverland: as if waking up hungry, the shape went softly towards the fridge to fetch a fresh apple, entering nonchalantly into the eye of the camera for a split second. The translucent appearance, but perhaps it is our imagination, preserves the superstar’s cheeky lightness just before layers of leather, studs, hair gel, huge and tacky belts transformed him into the grotesque heavy-metal caricature that begged — obsessively grabbing his crotch—tabloids to recognize a masculinity that had, so far, been called into question.

A split second; only a moment. The shadow appears while Miko Brando—Michael Jackson’s longtime friend, son of Marlon and actress Maria Luisa “Movita” Castaneda— accompanies a journalist from the Larry King Live show through the intricacies of the Californian amusement-park-slash-mansion. The video is an instant YouTube hit: 10 million views, leaving duplications and reloads.

This first gaseous return of the king of pop occurred in 2009, just a few months after he died due to an acute intoxication of opioids, sedatives and propofol. Last year was the 10th anniversary: we could have expected commemorations, TV specials, memories shared by family and acquaintances. We heard nothing, or very little. Instead, largely because of the release of Leaving Neverland (2019), a documentary directed and produced by the British filmmaker Dan Reed that details accusations of sexual assaults suffered by Wade Robson and James Safechuck at the hands of Jackson, revamping the seemingly endless history—fought in the media and legal arenas—of sexual misconduct allegations.

Amazon Prime Video retaliated to the Channel 4 and HBO production with Jordan Hill’s Michael Jackson: Chase the Truth (2019). Released in the August of the same year it highlighted some of the previous documentary’s contradictions and inconsistencies. Too late: the facts had become already too complex and slippery to be formatted in the mainstream forwardness of grief or celebration. Better to keep silent.


In 1995, nine sculptures of Jackson, originally conceived as guerrilla marketing tools by Sony Music Entertainment for the launch of the album HIStory, were strategically placed in selected major world cities. Last April, one was removed from the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Best, Netherlands. Purchased by the restaurant owner at a charity event for the sum of 12,852 pounds, the ten-meter tall sculpture had become a meeting point for the many fans of the American singer. “We find it important that all guests feel pleasant when they visit one of our restaurants”, commented a company spokesperson. We are remembered of the demolition of effigies of tyrants at the fall of the communist regimes, but here there aren’t angry crowds raging at the demolished scapegoats. The removal was made elegantly invisible.

The promotional statues in fact depict Michael Jackson looking almost like a dictator of an exotic totalitarian state, sporting the same look that the artist had started to adopt when the President Ronald Reagan publicly awarded him with the made-up Presidential Public Safety Commendation for granting the government the rights to use Beat It in an anti-drink and drive TV campaign, and perfecting it in the 1992 Super Bowl XXVII half-time show. Public recognition of his masculinity was no longer enough: Michael Jackson’s problem, now, was to be recognized as a historical figure. The King of Pop had married the daughter of the King of Rock and Roll—Lisa Marie Presley — his two male sons bear the word “Prince” in their names, the pompous escalation of the disc titles (“Bad”, “History”, “Invincible” followed post-mortem by the unattainable “Immortal”) and, above all, the aristocratic custom of using the services of personal portraitists. He firmly holds the hands of a braid maid Lisa Marie from atop a white horse in Camelot, stands in the warlike pose of a portrait executed by Ralph Wolfe Cowan: he’s in the lovely company of a colorful parrot, the trusted monkey Bubbles and an Asian child intimidated by the gaze of the painter. Finally, in Michael by David Nordahl he materializes as an ice angel, a swarm of “putti” taking care of him, preparing him, maybe, for astral ascent.

Screenshot from “Scream” video, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Epic Records, 1994


Michael Jackson was already familiar with the spectral and with the royal, or rather with the perfect manipulation of self-signifiers in absentia: seals or simulacra, as you wish. Not entirely convinced to shoot a commercial for Pepsi Cola, he insisted with three exasperated executives: “There are other ways to shoot me rather than to push a camera in my face. Use my symbols. Shoot my shoes, my spats, my glove, my look.”[1]

Almost any biography you happen to read about Michael Jackson is painful. The monstrous talent exiled him from his less single-minded peers and cancelled his youth. Poverty, domestic violence, his father’s obsession with physical appearances, the constant sense of performance deficit. Then, as an adult, the abysmal detachment from reality, the loneliness, the drugs, the mishandled PR pranks that turned a semi-god into a bullied “wacko”, the overlap between an obsessively tactical personality and aberrantly childish ingenuity.

A desperate escape from his past that predicted our present. Celebrity, entitlement, self-serving media tactics via a stubborn, almost paranoid self-victimization. The refusal to believe in the reality of any individual situatedness: class, geographical provenience, age, gender, race, body features are malleable features. A starry-eyed tale of infinite possibilities that – by veiling to the public the privilege, the struggle, the physical and mental pain that make them possible – have shaped a polished materialization of the ultra-liberal dream for mass entertainment.

Screenshot from “Scream” video, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Epic Records, 1994

We’d like to indulge thinking that today, he’d be working on modifying the corporeal material that composed his persona in an alchemical transmutation. The endlessly extensible and porous qualities of his trajectory are probably the reasons of contemporary art’s long-standing fascination with Michael as a prime material. The National Portrait Gallery in London even organized an exhibition dedicated to him—Off the Wall—in 2018. Let’s think for a moment of his ligaments, his muscles and his bones, sublimated in Jordan Wolfson’s video Neverland (2001) in which we only see the artist’s eyes—extrapolated from a dance routine—moving on a monochrome screen; His figure dissolving, multiplying in the bodies of the many fans who emulate his mannerisms in King (a Portrait of Michael Jackson, 2005) by Candice Breitz; morphing into the porcelain that fixes his form in time along with his beloved Bubbles the monkey in the three new sacred art sculptures realized by Jeff Koons in 1988 (Michael Jackson and Bubbles).

There is, here or there, a place to hide.



[1] J. Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness (New York: Birch Lane Press), 1991.

About the Author:

Francesco Tenaglia was born in Chieti and lives in Milan. He is the Editor-in-chief at Mousse Magazine. He writes for Rolling Stone, Esquire and other publications.