De-Thrilling Thriller

October 23, 2009

As the passing of pop icon Michael Jackson continues to reverberate throughout the culture, a recent work by BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department faculty member Josh Azzarella has gotten swept along with the media tide. Untitled #100 (Fantasia) takes Jackson’s long-form Thriller video and strips out the song, the star, the dancing and every other key element, leaving only the shots of rolling fog, atmospheric scenery and a deserted ticket booth.

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The piece is on view at the Kavi Gupta gallery in Chicago, October 31 – December 5, and can be viewed online at thefunkof40000years.com; Azzarella discussed the work with the Briefs via e-mail:

Tell me about Untitled #100 (Fantasia).
This piece is part of a body of work started in late 2003 that investigates collective memory, as defined by Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). There is specific focus on how memories are formed or not formed, and are initiated or recalled. Moreover, this practice of interfering with what is considered cemented, canonical documentation touches on issues of authorship and selective memory.

Was this a response to Michael Jackson’s death?
This piece has been in progress since 2007, when I began working on a feature-length film project in which I removed all of the people and events, rendering it a contemplative space constructed of only background and panning shots. As I began working, I found that I needed to understand a few things in terms of camera movement and film replication, so I decided that I needed a smaller project to work on, and that project needed to fit within the scope of my other works.

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Is it difficult to begin to approach such well-known imagery from the collective visual culture?
With my previous work at times it has been difficult, and I attribute that difficulty to the sacredness of the images that I deal with. However, with Thriller it wasn’t as difficult, and that lack of difficulty is something I attribute to Michael Jackson still being alive when I started the work. The Thriller video had been remade and/or spoofed so many times; it is an icon of popular culture, and not one that evokes events or memories with which we may not want to be confronted.

What does the original Thriller video mean to you?
I remember watching the original as a child, but it doesn’t really hold any personal significance for me. However, its impact on current and popular culture is virtually immeasurable, and that’s what drew me to it.

Images: Josh Azzarella, stills from Untitled #100 (Fantasia), 2007–2009; Courtesy DCKT Contemporary, New York.

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