The King of Pop’s New Clothes

King of Pop's New Clothes, 1997
King of Pop’s New Clothes, 1997

A reclusive pops star’s drug-fueled attempts at being loved through personal reinvention go horribly wrong when his public and private lives collide. The King of Pop’s New Clothes existed as both a live performance with projected video at the Columbus Drive Performance Space at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and as a video art piece that screened at Randolph Street Gallery.

The impetus for this surrealist nightmare came from Fausto Ferños who asked me to create a celebrity hallucination segment as part of his performance, Glamour in America, a heavy metal Christian fundamentalist musical.  At the time I had been reading Michael Jackson Was My Lover, a questionably sourced, pulp, tell-all about Jackson’s relationship with a teenage boy written by former Hard Copy reporter, Victor M. Guitierrez. After publication, Jackson was successfully sued Guitierrez for slander.

I became fascinated by the cosmology of celebrities’ storylines and how we construct them through collective myth-making. On the one hand there was the narrative of Jackson as soft spoken, innocent, child-like, talented, generous, and philanthropic. But there was also a counter-narrative of a calculating monster fueled by a raging, injured ego that could never be satiated by a seemingly endless narcissistic supply of manic fans, exotic animals, record sales, and children (especially terminally-ill and disabled children). The incongruities captivated me. I was not agreeing with or refuting allegations made against Jackson, but taking a close look at America’s blood lust for knocking down public figures from the very pedestals we once elevated them to.

At the same time, as part of my course-work at the Art Institute, I was researching postmodern gender theory, the abject body, post-humanism, and technologies that can drastically alter identity.  Everything seemed to gel within Jackson as a problemagic contemporary “trans” figure, who not only transed gender codes, but also race, sexuality, age, and generational norms.

The King of Pop’s New Clothes begins when protagonist of Glamour in America has a dream about taking drugs with celebrities and becoming famous. A projection begins as we hear the symphonic introduction to Papa Don’t Preach by another 80’s pop star who had some daddy issues. A montage of charged, over-the-top images appropriated from Jackson’s videos illuminates the screen – the ills of a hateful world meant to pimp our emotions that have become almost cliché in the context of a Michael Jackson music video:  African American school children watching the reflection of hooded clansmen burn crosses from a window, Neo-Nazi skinheads – fists pounding at the sky, and soldiers running through the rubble and the barbed wire fencing in a war-torn region.

King of Pop's New Clothes, 1997

Next we see hopeful images that are cliché  –  an over-filled sporting arena where Jackson has brought together people from all walks of life. The audience raises colorful cards that when assembled become cartoons of children. Sharing the stage with a giant inflatable planet Earth are equally cartoon-like real children. Each is adorned in Disney-fied stereotypic costumes like a utopic collection of ethnic Barbies worthy of a Benneton ad. It is as if the kitschy figurines stepped out of Small World. They appear to be healing the planet with their abject cuteness just by holding hands.

We flash from Jackson’s immaterial body enveloped by shooting stars, to psychadellic vignettes from a party, to manic fans cheering for their false god, Jackson. Titling accentuated by sparklers careen across the wall in both French and English. “Les Noveau Retements De L’Emperor”, “The King of Pop’s New Clothes

Jackson appears as an impossible spectacle towering from atop the pedestal of ten foot stilts. (Yes, I had to learn stilt-walking for this performance.)  He wears an enormous red dress with extra wide panniers to augment his hips. It is as if Jackson has reinvented himself for a his latest music video or halftime show – another chapter in his progression of extreme transformations. This latest incarnation –  the Nutcracker‘s Mother Ginger meets Madonna’s Dangerous Liasons-inspired 1990 MTV VMA Vogue look.

His pale face is even more fantastical than previous iterations: cheek implants in his forehead (a nod to French body artist, Orlan).  I fabricated a prosthetic mask of highly stylized accentuated features – inspired by Cindy Sherman’s performative portraiture that highlights the malleability of identity (a repetition of a repetition for which there is no original).   For weeks, I had been molding friends’ facial features (and my own) with liquid latex, not knowing exactly what I was doing.  And just as Jackson was accident-prone, I even endured some of my own burns and allergic reactions in the process.  I guess this was method-performance art.

Like the crimes of fashion in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Jackson’s underbelly is on full display. But in this case it is his crimes of passion – his troubling relationships with children –  that he seemingly flaunted without a shred of self-awareness or shame.

Similar to the Polichinelles in the Nutcracker, a handful of diminutive performers roller skate onto the stage from a gold trimmed slit in the front of his dress which doubled as a proscenium. The skaters represent the alleged victims of Jackson’s abuse – the children of Neverland Ranch and animals (or in this case animal-human hybrids) in his private zoo.

They sing the intro to Fame, a 1980’s television show about attention-thirsty aspiring child starlets from a fictional performing arts high school –  only the lyrics have been altered to reflect their worries – transhuman body part replacements, the whereabouts of Macaulay Caulkins, Bubbles the Chimp, and Elizabeth Taylor’s relapses and brain surgery.

The King of Pop's New Clothes, 1997
Marsian De Lellis, Jule Puzzon, 1997

The skaters circle around Elizabeth Taylor who rolls in on her electric wheelchair. But something is different. Maybe it’s the pain killers. Taylor appears demonic with darkened eye makup and fangs. She’s types into a Speak and Spell (the toy hacked by E.T. as a communication device to contact his other-worldly coutnerparts who abandoned him in this hostile place we call, Earth).  She is accompanied by a costumed service dog.

Side story: Even before I met the performer who played Elizbeth Taylor, Julie Puzzon, I was terrified of her. It wasn’t so much her muscular dystrophy as the three lawsuits she had against The School over accessibility (or the lack there of). She was always accompanied by Petrona, her service dog, who wore a sash that said something abrasive to the uninitiated like  “Do not pet –  I’m working”.  I was hired as Julie’s assistant to thwart off another lawsuit by a teacher who fumbled disability terminology during an interview. As part of the job, I helped Julie carry audio and video equipment to a performance art class where she was a teaching assistant.

While working with Julie, I found her to be much more personable and relatable than I feared – plus she was fun and goth and into cos-play!  One of my favorites was a The Wizard of Oz-themed costumes. She dressed as Dorothy’s tornado-crashed farmhouse with the striped socks of Wicked Witch’s atrophied ruby slipper adorned feet poking out underneath. Julie sometimes role-played as a vampire and even had sharpened prosthetic teeth made to fit. She was more outgoing from the confines of her chair than I was in my own able-bodied self made prision. She even ran away from home in hilly San Francisco.

When I told Julie about The King of Pop’s New Clothes, she immediately wanted to be part of it. So I cast her as Taylor. During rehearsals I also learned she had been a one-time Jerry Lewis MDA telethon cast off – a survivor of Lewis’s  patronizing antics as a toddler. He used her as a porp – saying she didn’t have much time left –  to raise money.  Julie survived Lewis’ grim predictions by nearly four decades. And she was sympathetic to disability rights activists that some called “militant” like the Jerry’s Orphans featured in Kerry Richardson’s documentary, The Kids Are All Rightwho attempted to shut down the Jerry Lewis Telethon .

In 1997, a vulture-culture of sick star-gazers – drooling with anticipation for any signs of weakness or vulnerability – had Elizabeth Taylor on celebrity death watch. The Enquirer put her boughts with cancer on blast with covers featuring a badly photoshoped bald headshot of Taylor with captions like “Bald Liz Fights Brain Seizures”.

Back to the performance:  Just as the skaters encircling Taylor sing, “Baby remember my shame”, she bites off the finger of a human-bunny hybrid who screams. The tone shifts and there is a montage of samples.  We hear Jackson as a ware wolf shout “Go away”, and a carnival barker from Todd Brownings Freaks, announcing “They’re going to make them one of you my pretty peacock”.

We hear a sample of Nina Hagen announing, “Ladies and Gentlemen” and the music changes to a younger pre-plastic surgery Jackson singing  “2-4-6-8 Who do you appreciate?”. Audiences applaud at a black tie awards show. Brook Shields adoringly snaps a photo her friend Jackson who is at the center of adoration.

Next Jackson’s surgical nurse and future wife, Debbie Rowe, played by Nette E. Brenner appears. She scolds Taylor. “Bad Girl! Bad Girl! Get this finger out of your mouth”, she yells, “You are E.T. for short.. This is it! Now I’m having Michael’s baby.”

1997 KoPNC Michael Jackson Nettie Brenner

Side Story: I met Nettie in the installation, Feet, at Randolph Street Gallery, where video artist and collaborator, Kathleen O’Shea and I performed alternative spa treatments on her. Nettie was the gallerist’s mother and made a string of appearances in our collaborations, including as K-Mart customer service in Date Rape: The American Classic. She was a fun, complicated patchwork of identities: senior, elementary school teacher, chain smoker, Fulbright scholar, and model PFLAG mother, who moonlighted in our projects as an experimental performance artist.

Back to the performance: After scolding Taylor/E.T., Nettie goes into labor. There is a build up on the video screen: We flash to a church choir adorned in vibrant robes each a color of the rainbow, Asian fans swarming a tour bus, an injured child with a head trauma alone in an orphanage. Nettie gives birth to an inflatable beach ball globe tucked under her lab coat. “We are the world!”, she shrieks, as she violently throws the globe at Jackson as if it were a hand grenade.

Here I should mention my fascination with the disorder, munchausen syndrome by proxy in which a caregiver fabricates or induces illness upon those in their care to garner sympathy or attention. With all of the media speculation, it was hard not to wonder if Jackson’s proximity to sick children was not a diversionary tactic to distract the public from abuse.

The birth montage culminates with the detention of the atom bomb. The room spins and the  video track switches to a remake of Orlan’s Successful Operation, only Orlan’s part has been recast with Jackson and the surgeon by Chicago club kid, Zoe Orgasma with his artfully painted eyebrows and green mohawk.

Body artist, Orlan, and her Carnal Art manifesto was another primary influence. In her long term project, The Reincarnation of Saint-ORLAN, where she reinvented her image through cosmetic surgery addresses the manipulation of the body by biomedical science. I borrowed heavily from the shot list of her 1990 video, Successful Operationwhere she received only local anesthetic so she could stay conscious during surgery to read passages by psychoanalysts and theorists, including one of my favorites by Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni:

Skin is deceiving… in life, one only has one’s skin… there is a bad exchange in human relations because one never is what one has… I have the skin of an angel, but I am a jackal… the skin of a crocodile, but I am a puppy, the skin of a black person, but I am white, the skin of a woman, but I am a man; I never have the skin of what I am. There is no exception to the rule because I am never what I have.

Footage of Orgasma performing surgery on Jackson in the style of Orlan are intercut with close ups of the ensemble. The walls of the surgical theater are decorated with Jackson ephemera – blown up copies of Enquirer photos and quotes. Jackson activates a number of props from the surgical bed including glitter encrusted crosses, and plastic lobsters.

The surgery climaxes with a dementedly slowed down remix of We Are the World – Cyndi Lauper’s iconic moaning intercut with samples from Bad (“Your but is mine”) and Todd Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks, which looked at the politics of otherness and exploitation in a traveling circus, where the “freaks” were depicted as trusting and honorable and the non-freaks were the real monsters. “We accept her. We accept her. One of us! One of Us! Gooba Gabba! Gooba Gabba! One of us! One of us!”, goes the code of the freaks.

Performer’s heads in the video blur into one another. We used the analogue video effects from an image processor to reference the much slicker talking heads of different races and nationalities as they morph into one another from the Black or White music video pushing the myth of America is a happy melting pot where everyone gets along.

Eventually the performers surround Jackson with their guns aimed. In the end Jackson is assassinated, much like any celebrity who is placed upon a pedestal only to be knocked off it.  This performance happened to be the same year Princess Diana was essentially assassinated by the paparazzi – a morbid illustration of the Heisenberg uncertainty principal in quantum physics that the observer changes (or in this case kills) that which they are observing.  He stumbles off the stage from his stilts.

The video closes with a freshly operated upon bruised and bandaged Jackson, still high on endorphins, making out with Orgazma. He smugly sips Jesus juice from a Diet Pepsi can – a call back to the inciting moment on his journey towards becoming a monster during the shooting of a commercial when his hair set on fire (and he became addicted to plastic surgery). We hear samples of Vincent Price cackling from the end of Thriller another music video where Jackson underwent a dramatic transformation towards monstrosity.

Michael Jackson is an extreme version of a universal story – a man in the mirror reflecting back our universal need to be loved and validated by others while evolving over time and redefine oneself.

Michael Jackson is a subject I have returned to many times. In 2004, I put together a live puppet show that illustrated allegations of animal abuse at Neverland Ranch. In 2005, I shot a puppet video centered on the singer’s relationship with a very special monkey.  In 2009, the shock and horror upon receiving the news of Jackson’s passing via text led me to make a photographic series of obituary messages. I also spoke about  Jackson frequently as a guest on Feast of Fun.

Michael Jackson represented many of the through lines I would explore in future projects. My commitment to off-beat characters whose private manias become public fodder for tabloids and reality television can be seen in pieces like Object of Her Affection and The FeederThemes of plastic surgery and the negotiation of identity in an ever shifting landscape of technologies that can drastically alter and remap the body have reappeared in pieces like Bride of Wildenstein – the Musical and Raggedy Ann to Real Doll.  Crime as entertainment is a subject I am currently taking another look at in Model Killer Giant Crimes and Tiny Cover-Ups.


Collaborators included Kathleen O’Shea, Julie Puzzon, Zoe Orgasma, Nette E. Brenner, Juba Kalamka, Prudence Browne, Nadine Bopp, Davida Igram, William Wheeler, Kate Hinrichsen, Noel Bartus, Kappi Wright, Arlena Tucker-Hampton, Lee Wells, Jasmine Kronbeck, Kera Evans, and Fausto Ferños,

Film crew Haejin Kim, Ximena Musch, Peter Ciecka, Mitchell Magee, Liz Gueunther, Maria Cicarelli, Ricarda Montinaga, Arlene Harting, Pam Staron, Jessica Henderson, Inez Somer-Simspn, Julie Shanks, and Ayanna U’Dongo

Project History

1997 – School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive Performance Space (performance)
Randolph Street Gallery , Chicago (video screening)