Authentic Objects: Rhinestone vs. Glove

When I saw the largest rhinestone in the world at the Liberace Museum, I was surprised at my own disappointment. It sparkled as much as one would expect as it rotated on a black motorized base, but the impact of physically seeing this object was strikingly minimal.

lWorld’s Largest Rhinestone, the Liberace Museum, Las Vegas; image by Jason M., Yelp.

Not having seen any photographs of the rhinestone prior to my visit, my expectations were based on its power as communicated by Dave Hickey in Air Guitar essay “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz.”  He named it the keystone of the museum and the pinnacle of authenticity when juxtaposed against the antique items Liberace collected.  This reading was certainly true; the rhinestone embodied Liberace’s contributions and personality more than any other  in the museum. However, this was a more cerebral affect than I expected.  The sort of “authenticity” I anticipated and could not find  related more to the physical encounter with the rock. The absence of that highly addictive “wow” moment of seeing “the real thing” was the source of my struggle.

This evening I left work for an exhibition I thought would either elicit an extreme sense of wonder or would fall inexplicably flat in a display beyond the level of spectacle even I can enjoy: a tribute to Michael Jackson at the Experience Music Project.  Despite pursuing a master’s degree in Museum Studies in the city of Seattle for two years, I had never been to the EMP prior to today.  Immediately upon entering I was confronted by the building’s interior labyrinth of fluorescent walls and staircases converging into a mysterious core of museum galleries.

Northwest Passage, Experience Music Project. Image from the Experience Music Project.

I decided the best approach to this foray into popular culture was to “happen upon” the MJ tribute.  While wandering the chrome hallways the second floor of the museum, I noticed the constant spectacle inherent in the presentation of objects. The galleries were noticeably dark, heightening the glossiness of  instruments perfectly suspended in their cases. In the “Northwest Passage,”  gluttonous collections of grunge memorabilia were thickly montaged across the walls; by the time I reached the Nirvana spread, I was ready for a booming voice from above to proclaim, “You have arrived at Kurt Cobain’s guitar.”

I started to see that my plan was flawed; I wandered past Trimpin’s IF VI WAS IX: Roots and Branches guitar-tornado sculpture multiple times before asking for assistance.

Trimpin. IF VI WAS IX:Roots and Branchces. Image from Travel Japan Blog.

I found a guard at the end of the Jimi Hendrix memorabilia hallway, and she directed me back to the dark gallery containing the guitar-tornado.  She said “the glove” was there and suddenly I wondered if a single glove comprised the entire tribute, if this journey were going to lead only to disappointment.

I reentered the dark gallery and saw a small, freestanding plexiglass  case off to the side, facing away from Trimpin’s sculpture.  As I approached, the back of a black garment came into view, its dulled sequins offering a muted reflection of the gallery lighting: the famed jacket from Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.  Immobile, the jacket was far from the stunning piece I remembered from its image on TV.  But as I came around the front of the case, the glove was immediately very present: white, illuminated and covered in crystal sequins.

The plexiglass surrounding the jacket and glove was covered in fingerprints.  The only other objects in the case were a black mount and a small, modest text panel containing a brief overview of Jackson’s musical accomplishments and ultimate demise.  In comparison not only to the excess of the EMP’s other displays, but also the entire process of Michael Jackson’s death, the understatement of this display was perhaps the most appropriate tribute to his life I have seen to date: the glove brilliantly glowing in the dark gallery, allowed to speak for itself.

Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Staring as it reflected specks of light through the plexi and across my shirt,  I was engrossed by the realness of this object I had assumed would look no different from any other time I had seen it in photographs, on MTV and, most recently, in the Hollywood-style memorial service for the King of Pop.  But it was the way I had always seen this glove as an image that made its authenticity so tangible when I encountered it in person.

The transitory moment from an  exclusively two dimensional, media-based relationship to one in three dimensions instigates the wondrous “wow” response, during which we see an aspect of an object and its context that is not visible in reproductions. Although it is intuitive to think that something as hyper-real (and generally hyped) as Michael Jackson’s glove cannot possibly offer anything new to experience, seeing the realness of this object differs distinctly from seeing it on television or in a magazine; in use, it focused eyes on Michael’s movement, but in a dark, quiet corner of the EMP, its concentrated command of attention creates its own plane of existence.

Similar to pop music itself, the glove is easy; it is easy to like and easy to think of as the object that would embody Michael Jackson best.  Yet like Liberace’s rhinestone and its own facet of authenticity, the glove, in its understated display, provides insight into the intricacies of how reality interacts and slides beneath the surface of the images that replace it.