Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s fine art portrayal of Michael Jackson (part 2)

Rude, kitsch, hilarious and surreal. These are just a few labels that critics have applied to David LaChapelle’s (1963) photography and video art work. Yet his work has also been defined as ‘hyper-realistic aesthetic’ and ‘artfully staged tableaux’ that carry ‘layered social messages’. Without a doubt, LaChapelle’s art is made to question and provoke. Particularly when the subject of his work is Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.

David LaChapelle's 'Archangel Michael' detail

This article is the sequel to: Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s fine art portrayal of Michael Jackson (part 1)

Archangel Michael

The third photograph in LaChapelle’s Jackson triptych is called ‘Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer’. It portrays Jackson as his namesake archangel who has defeated and trampled Satan. A sword lies discarded at his feet while a yellow snake – the biblical symbol of evil – curls its way up Satan’s leg.

David LaChapelle's 'Archangel Michael'

Jackson’s outfit – a combination of his signature military attire and shin pads, plus parts of a medieval coat of mail – depicts him as a knight or warrior. He is standing on the top of a mighty cliff at the edge of the ocean, which is no coincidence as the archangel is mostly venerated on mountain tops and rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. Famous examples are Mont Saint Michel in France, St. Michael’s Mount in the UK, and Skellig Michael in Ireland.

Sheltered by rock, LaChapelle’s warrior-archangel seems to stand perfectly still while the devil, in contrast, claws at his leg and tries to move away from under the archangel’s foot. Although dark storm clouds dominate the sky, the sun starts to break through. Here at last, LaChapelle seems to suggest, Jackson has conquered his inner demons: the allegations, the insecurities, the loneliness.

But victory comes at a price. Shedding holy tears of sadness rather than joy, the archangel looks sideways towards the light, with his hands folded in prayer. It seems like a rather odd and pious pose at this moment of victory. But perhaps LaChapelle does not want to convey a message of triumph and vindication, but rather one of sacrifice and loyalty. The archangel’s pose is reminiscent of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Redefining a photograph

In order to create these photographs, LaChapelle worked with Jackson impersonator Carlo Riley, and with Jesus Villa, a Cirque du Soleil veteran who modelled for the devil in red. Yet despite Riley’s likeness to Jackson, LaChapelle worked hard on recreating Jackson’s facial features: “I used a Michael Jackson impersonator and spent weeks and weeks moving pixels around to create the face of Michael Jackson circa 1990. It’s a photograph, but it’s a not a portrait, so it sort of redefines what a photograph is. We spent so much time going back in and putting in details and flaws, and there’s no question that it’s Michael Jackson. But he never posed for it,” LaChapelle told Interview Magazine in 2010.

The resulting Jackson triptych is haunting, unsettling and yet all too familiar. Ultimately, it is based on Jackson’s most tragic period in life, a time in which he plunged from great heights as an idol for millions of fans, to be accused of crimes he abhorred, to be crucified by the media, and to be left by most of his friends. These underlying facts create an all-pervading sense of loss in LaChapelle’s work. At the same time, LaChapelle’s use of religious imagery also questions us, the viewers, about our own part in Jackson’s demise. Idolising him to an extent that made him nearly untouchable or ‘divine’, we set Jackson on a pedestal so high that he could go nowhere but down.

There must be more to life than this

In 2014, four years after ‘American Jesus’, LaChapelle resumes his work on Jackson by creating a video to accompany the singer’s posthumous duet with Freddie Mercury. ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This’ originates in the early 1980s when Jackson and Mercury record a demo in Jackson’s home studio in Encino. However, the song is only released as a duet at the end of 2014.

LaChapelle shoots the video on Maui as part of his ‘Paradise Regained’ series of work. The video carries a strong anti-war message, showing death and destruction on an unidentified battle field. A young soldier, played by Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, wakes up after his platoon has been hit by an explosive. Fleeing the scene in horror, he runs through the woods looking for ‘more to life than this’. In the meantime an ethereal and angelic figure, played by Australian model Jessica Gomes, awaits his arrival at the gates of a garden that resembles Eden.

There must be more to life than this
David LaChapelle’s battlefield in ‘There must be more to life than this’ (photo: video still)

When the young soldier finally reaches the bridge that will bring him to Paradise, he falls down as he did in battle. Images of Polunin as a soldier, a dancer, and as a soul looking for Paradise alternate when he crashes down to earth. In this dramatic moment, LaChapelle’s Pietà returns. The female angel cradles the body of the dying soldier, the son sacrificed in war, like Michelangelo’s Mary cradles the body of Jesus, her son sacrificed on the cross.

Yet that is not all LaChapelle does in terms of imagery. Adding another layer of reference, he replicates the woodland setting of ‘American Jesus: Hold Me Carry Me Boldly’ and thus recalls the image of Jackson cradled in the arms of Jesus. In their essence of sacrificial love – LaChapelle seems to say – the young soldier, Michael Jackson, and Jesus Christ are ‘as one’.

David LaChapelle's 'Pieta'

Sergei Polunin’s effortless dance

Polunin’s role as a soldier is impressive, but what makes the video remarkable is its combination with images of Polunin’s dancing. Filmed in the architectural skeleton of a derelict chapel in Hana on Maui, Polunin dances an emotional and heartbreaking choreography created by his friend and fellow dancer Jade Hale-Christofi. Wearing nothing but short, nude-coloured ballet leggings, all attention is drawn to Polunin’s powerful dance moves and the prominent tattoos and scars that decorate his torso.

Polunin dance is not entirely exclusive to ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This’. LaChapelle used similar footage in a video he made for Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ that was released in 2014 as well. It is not clear for whom LaChapelle originally recorded the ballet dance, or if any of the two videos was officially commissioned. The Jackson-Mercury video, for example, appeared on the internet in February 2015 without being officially announced or released.

A reason why we see rainbows

Seeing LaChapelle’s passion for Jackson, it is surprising that the two never collaborated in life, especially since they both rose to their commercial heights in the 1990s, had mutual friends, and used their love for fantasy and escapism to influence and transform.

“My pictures are escapist. The world can be traumatic and dark and ugly; I know, because when I was 18 or 19 I lost a lot of very close friends to drug use and AIDS. There are photographers who represent that in their photos, and I respect a lot of their work. But for me, pictures are fantasies. At the same time, they’re a document of our era. I think the best photographs have that dual purpose. I don’t think something has to be ugly to be valuable. There’s this idea that good photography has to be cold, gritty, political. But I believe you can make the picture ambiguous enough to be beautiful and entertaining yet also make a statement,” LaChapelle told American Photo in 2001.

Jackson shared this appreciation of beauty and wonder as intrinsic values. “There’s a reason why God made the sunset red or purple or green. It’s beautiful to look at – it’s a minute of joy. There’s a reason why we see rainbows after a rain, or a forest where the deer come out. That’s wonder, that’s escapism. It touches your heart and there’s no danger in that. Escapism and wonder is influence. It makes you feel good, and that allows you to do things. You just keep on moving ahead, and you say, ‘God, is this wonderful – do I appreciate it,’” he said in a rare interview with Melody Maker in 1980.

Their mutual love of escapism, however, does not mean that Jackson’s and LaChapelle’s work is bereft of realism. In fact, life’s harsh reality is the basis from which both have created their individual works of art, be in in photography, music, dance or film.  Reality is also the starting point for transformation. And transformation is what LaChapelle’s work is all about.

Moreover, similar to Milton’s poems ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’, LaChapelle embraces the idea of reversal: everything that was once lost will be regained and restored in holy splendour. Woundedness and prejudice change into healing and understanding. Human vulnerability and fragility that were once rejected, are now understood and accepted for their sacredness. In this way, LaChapelle’s art ultimately redeems the King of Pop.

© Annemarie Latour

Note: This article is the sequel to Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s fine art portrayal of Michael Jackson (part 1)


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