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June 19th, 2002 Caryn B. Brooks | Featured Stories
 

Celebrity SKINNED

EMP's latest exhibit, (Un)Common Objects, puts rock-'n'-roll artifacts

     
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We treat our celebrities, regardless of artistic merit, like an untouchable royal family, which causes most of us to act like dribbling serfs despite the value of our individual lives.... The implication of Fame, in this value-warped society, is: You've made it. You and your grand talents are so bright, you are somehow, both physically and spiritually, light-years beyond us bone-sucking hacks.

--Cintra Wilson, A Massive Swelling

At first, an exhibit that places items like Michael Jackson's white glove, Slash's top hat and Madonna's bustier in a gallery setting might seem like a terrible idea. The whole concept of (Un)Common Objects: Pop Music's Sacred Stuff could easily be criticized as Disnefying the sycophantic celebrity slobbering that's already the No. 1 hobby of America-at-large. The last thing Seattle's Experience Music Project, which has done a more than admirable job of showing off music in a serious fashion, needs is a display that puffs up the artifacts of stardom. You'd think EMP would know better.

But then I saw (Un)Common Objects--and I changed my mind. This exhibit has an intriguing presence that portrays the concept of celebrity in a way that's inevitably surprising: The act of placing before us bits of clothing once worn by pop-culture's heroic icons actually normalizes them and, in essence, deflates some of their power. Conceptions are both challenged and proven true--which is just what a history museum should strive for--so if you're willing to put some thought behind your perusal, it's worth the three-hour drive to visit this altar.

The exhibit is something like The Simpsons: Some viewers will get the jokes that make you laugh at them on face value, and some viewers will get the jokes that make you laugh and cry when the satirical underpinning soaks through. The first clue that all is not what it seems is the cornice above the exhibit entrance. The fancy scripted signage has the clean, sterile look of a blockbuster ancient-history exhibit: The Imperial Tombs of Some Long Gone Culture. By nicking the style of corporate-sponsored "art" exhibits that churn King Tuts into Steve Martin skits, this show makes clear it has a sense of humor.

A line of televisions flanks the entrance of the small exhibit room and bleats fast-moving images of the artists. It seems an unnecessary element; in order to be selected for the exhibit, the people, places and things should have already been singed into our consciousness without necessitating a reminder.

The objects themselves--more than 40 of them--are hung in display cases that resemble Rodeo Drive store windows, giving the impression that the pieces are for sale. Many are fascinating. A pair of Joey Ramone's sneakers are so worn they become symbolic of both his journey and his legendary humble nature. Gene Simmons' huge, scuffed boots reaffirm his place as blustery court jester. The infamous Britney Spears "Slave" outfit, worn during her snake-wielding performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, is so faint and barren, it's clear that it's not her clothes but her lack thereof that's the cause of her cultural impact. I found myself most compelled by the Michael Jackson display; his beaded jacket looked like a schmatta some grandma would wear to an evening bar mitzvah, while his white glove was small and cheap.

Other items don't do as much to raise interest because of their less apparent impact: the Stonehenge model from This Is Spinal Tap, the big apple from the Beatles' Apple Records label, and the vacuum cleaner that dude from Phish plays all just seemed like objects to me.

But maybe that was the point.

Signage accompanying each piece waxes poetic about the item, in many cases incorporating mythical references. For instance, the writeup accompanying Britney's virgin/whore costume reads: "Britney Spears may be pop's girl-next-door, but she's also a modern-day Salome, wielding scarves like weapons in outfits such as this one." Patti Smith's torn T-shirt is complemented with this bit: "Oracles of the ancient world, like the Greek Tiresias, often appeared in wrinkled rags, their modest clothing concealing the power of their prophecies."

The connection of these modern-day myth-makers to their centuries-old counterparts is a nice touch, but what makes it more potent is that the ancient mythical--that is, most often fictional--characters are tied to celebrities who, last time I checked, still required oxygen (in Michael Jackson's case, to an absurd degree). Our culture seems unable or unwilling to create new fictional characters whose own strength and depth of symbolism carries them to greatness. Name, if you can, a commonly known literary character, post-Holden Caulfield, whose very name is the definition of a greater idea. Even celebrated fictional film characters seem to fade away as soon as summer movie season passes. (Forrest Gump, anyone?) By tying celebrity slough to ageless myths, (Un)Common Objects tells a cautionary tale about our own societal sins. Do we really want to hand the stories of our time to halfwit hardbodies like Britney? Or should the nervous pervert Britney brings out in all of us be documented, thus forcing us to our knees in shame? (Un)Common Objects can (and should) lead you to ponder such moral quandaries.


(Un)Common Objects: Pop Music's Sacred Stuff
Experience Music Project, 325 5th Ave. N, Seattle, Wash., (206) 770-2700. Adults $19.95. On display through Oct. 20.
 
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