Since Leaving Neverland, a 2019 documentary, shook the core of many fans of the singer and songwriter Michael Jackson, his reputation has been tinged for some. You might expect that an exhibition of works centring on the ‘King of Pop,’ then, might receive negative feedback these days. However, so far, it seems it hasn’t after opening at its most recent location in Finland.
‘Michael Jackson: On the Wall,’ which riffs off the title of Jackson’s 1979 album, recently opened at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art and since, it has continued to garner support and draw in visitors. The exhibition first opened last year at London’s National Portrait Gallery. It was organized by Nicholas Cullinan alongside Jackson’s estate and after it wrapped up there, it travelled to Paris’ Grand Palais and Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle before opening at the Espoo on August 21st.
What Arja Miller, chief curator for the Espoo, believes, though, is that the exhibition doesn’t necessarily glorify Jackson, but shows how he impacted the world. ‘For us,’ she told artnet News, ‘it was important that the exhibition doesn’t celebrate Jackson or put him on a pedestal. [Instead], it explores him and his impact as a cultural symbol.’ The exhibition features work by nearly 50 artists, including Andy Warhol, Kehinde Wiley, and Isa Genzken, and not a single work by Jackson, himself. Thus, ‘On the Wall’ solely focuses on how the music icon did and continues to impact artists and our society even as more details, both good and bad, of his life come out. Miller also pointed out that some works in the exhibition deal specifically with Jackson’s life and the allegations made against him even before Leaving Neverland was released. ‘The allegations are not new,’ said Miller. ‘Jackson has been a subject of controversy for decades already.’
Leaving Neverland, released at Sundance in January this year and then on TV months later in March, explores the more detailed allegations brought against Jackson by Wade Robson and James Safechuck. The documentary was a joint production between HBO and BBC Channel 4 and directed and produced by Dan Reed. It was nominated for five Emmys and was critically acclaimed but it has received mixed reviews from viewers and critics who don’t believe the allegations.
Interestingly, after its release there was a spike in sales and streams of Jackson’s music, so, perhaps it is unsurprising that ‘On the Wall’ continues to receive positive reviews even after Leaving Neverland. What Miller believes, though, is that ‘On the Wall’ doesn’t offer ‘one-dimensional answers’ and that’s why it continues on strongly. She continued that the museum strives to present a platform for both art and artists dealing with various issues, including those of idols and those who influence the world, much like Jackson. ‘Michael Jackson is recognizable worldwide,’ she said, ‘in a way that almost no one else is. The question is more about art in context and how interpretations can change over time.’