I remember hearing the news of Michael Jackson’s death in June of 2009. It was early morning in a small village in Northern Spain, and as I entered the local bar to get a coffee, a woman behind the counter cried out: “Michael Jackson está muerto!” The fact that this middle-aged Spanish woman felt compelled to convey the news to a complete stranger is telling evidence of Jackson’s prominence within the global cultural consciousness. It is true that at the time of his death he had lived as a rentier on his old hits for years, and was by then mostly famous for charges of gross indecency and his increasingly crumbling nose. Even so he was still an icon, and the announcement of his death came as a sharp reminder that the man had actually been a living, breathing human being.
Thus, it seems like a good idea when Helsinki-based Iraqi artist Adel Abidin makes Jackson the protagonist of his thought experiment: “What would happen if a famous pop star rose from the grave?” The result – the short film Michael (2015) – is one of the works in Abidin’s double exhibition Between Pop Music, Terror and Seduction at Fotogalleriet and Oslo Central Station. His name may be unfamiliar to many, but Adel Abidin has exhibited his work at a large number of renowned museums and biennials throughout the world, and has represented Finland as well as Iraq at the Venice Biennial. Abidin’s works focus on media portrayals of dominant cultural norms and political and religious power, and his main vehicle for critique is humour, especially of the satirical kind. Humour often involves a balancing act between the coarse and the sophisticated. Abidin can at times resort to platitudes, but the works shown in Oslo are mostly among his better pieces. This does not, however, mean that they are flawless.
Michael claims to be a TV broadcast from an American channel that has secured an exclusive interview with the resurrected pop star. The opening sequence cuts dramatically back and forth between various international news bulletins reporting the sensation before a talkshow host welcomes Jackson to an empty recording studio at New York’s Times Square, hysterical crowds gathering outside. Abidin’s starting point is that pop stars have taken over the role previously reserved for religious prophets. When Jackson – characteristically wearing a uniform that could have been made by Muammar Gaddafi’s tailor – is interviewed about life after death his replies take the form of his own song lyrics: precisely the kind of flowery and ambiguous phrases one might find in religious writings. Having responded equally enigmatically to live questions from the audience outside, Jackson breaks down and flees from the cameras, hand held up protectively to cover his face in his trademark style.
So how well does Abidin hit the mark with this media satire? First of all, the premise of the film – that celebrity culture has taken over the role previously played by religion – is simply not true anymore. Quite the contrary: religion seems to command far more public attention than celebrity stories today. Abidin’s diagnosis may have been relevant in Michael Jackson’s heyday back in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the entire media landscape and the demands placed on artists have completely changed since then. You can no longer parade ten-metre statues down the Thames when launching a new album the way Jacksom did when his career first began to fade. Now, artists are expected to frequently and generously share even the most insignificant everyday events or chores with the world via social media. Take someone like Kanye West, a world-famous star who shares Jackson’s megalomania and eccentricity, but at the same time he keeps his fans updated with trivial pictures of his most recent burger lunch.
Wringing some truly hard-hitting satire from this set-up would probably have required Abidin to enact the shy and retiring Jackson’s (presumably clumsy) attempts at adjusting to a new media reality. However, such a solution would have required a more expansive format than the usually compact art video. At any rate, Abidin seems to do best when his simple, clear-cut ideas are not bogged down by too many narrative threads. A good example of this is Cover-Up (2014), which is shown at Oslo Central Station, partly as a video loop inside the station and as a giant still on the southern façade of the building. On paper the basic concept of Cover-Up sounds insufferably banal: a reprise of the classic scene where an air vent in the pavement causes Marilyn Monroe’s skirt to billow up, exposing her underwear – only this time the scene is played out with an Arab-looking man wearing a traditional thawb. Surprisingly, the result is not mired in low comedy or racist mockery: rather, it is a surprisingly ambiguous and subtle game of gender roles. The video shows a bashful young man, knock-kneed and awkward as he seeks to keep the fluttering thawb down at a modest ankle length, all while smiling coquettishly at the camera. This is far removed from the triumphant, sexualised delight evident in Monroe’s supposedly liberating break with the 1950s codes of morality. Rather, Cover-Up conveys a sense of vulnerable, shy sensuality that is rarely attributed to men in public spaces – and certainly not to Muslim men at the central stations of European capitals.
Cover-Up is undoubtedly comical, but it is hard to define exactly what the comedy resonates with – which prejudices are echoed most clearly here? The work does not appear to have a provocative effect; most passersby simply smile at the video in mild curiosity. Abidin’s objective is more clear-cut in Three Love Songs (2014), shown in the side gallery of Fotogalleriet. The three videos are pastiches of various genres within Western popular music, set here to Arabic lyrics that turn out to be authentic odes to Saddam Hussein.
The method is simple: by letting a sensual female jazz singer wisper phrases like “Oh protector of the weak and generous to the guest / By Allah we owe our lives to your moustache”, Abidin brings out the lyrics’ latent comedy to great effect. In a kind of pop music drag act the video lashes out at both sources of inspiration – music clichés and desperately exalted celebrations of dictators – and not until this work arrives does the exhibition title Between Pop Music, Terror and Seduction truly come into its own. The song lyrics are absurd and ridiculous, appearing alien in spite of their familiar musical backdrop. At the same time we know that odes singing the praises of strong leaders are sung with increasing frequency even in our part of the world, and perhaps it is in such fusions of the familiar and the alien that Abidin’s works are most successful. Laughter is accompanied by a sense of unease, then, followed by the question of what we are actually laughing at.