Elvis sightings

Curated by Susan Charlton
Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

The exhibition Elvis Sightings, curated by Susan Charlton , was part of the Elvis Expo week organised by Brent Clough and Mathew Leonard. They run an excellent program on popular culture on ABC Radio National called "In the Mix" (Mondays at 10.05 am and 8.05pm). The exhibition thus occurred in the context of a multimedia Elvis event, including radio pro grams, live performance, a symposium and a memorabilia show.

In a sense the whole Elvis Expo was a work of art that took as its medium the media itself. Elvis was a suitable image to choose for such a project. As Greil Marcus shows in his book Dead Elvis, the King remains King because he was a far more complex and multifaceted image than is often imagined. Bits of the Elvis iconography end up combined and transformed with other signs, so that he proliferates across the information landscape. "He was not even, or at least, only a singer, or an artist. He was that perfect American symbol, fundamentally a mystery."1

The artists marshalled for Elvis Sightings were not called upon to explain the mystery once and for all. Elvis is simply too big for art to master and explain. Rather, they explored some idiosyncratic and sometimes rather personal connections and permutations from the vast repertoire of possible incarnations of the King. "Eivis is alive and well and living in a place called Heartbreak Hotel" according to Mary Temelovski, who provides album covers for the records Elvis never got around to making. She draws attention to the square album cover format as a neglected genre of modern art and to the need to keep manufacturing permutations of the album of Elvis images and poses. Scott Redford sees him more in the context of the popular press than the of the packaging process. Redford 's Elvis appears as a tabloid cover story: LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT (ELVIS). It seems appropriate that Elvis reappear from beyond the grave to deliver elementary lessons in poststructuralism. After all, he was way ahead of Barthes in working out the theory of the second degree.

Laurens Tan provides a context for viewing the audio-visual legacy of Elvis which is at once sumptuous and vile, tacky and solemn. "Well ... the image is the thing," says Elvis in the video cut-up "and the human being is another." Or rather was another. As I have argued elsewhere, the body of Elvis had to be sacrificed to the greater glory of the proliferation of the image.2 "Give the people something special and they 'll pay for it." That special something was sacrifice.

Whereas the image is usually considered something fleeting and the monumental something eternal and nearly changeless, Elvis presents the paradox of the eternal yet changing image. He is the nearest thing to a still centre in the media landscape precisely because he is a chameleon among images. Sheridan Kennedy furnishes Elvis with the funereal monument he had to have. Like Tan's installation, it perfectly captures that sense of good taste on the edge of bad. In this bier he would truly be the King of Heaven.

Leone Knight and Viki Dun use Elvis to produce the most extraordinary meditation on fetishism , Elvis is Drag. As with all kinds of fetishism, it's all in the details, in the subtle con junction of body parts and objects. "I can 't help falling in love with you" croons Elvis, capturing that delicious sense of compulsion and masochism that accompanies seduction. As Baudelaire suggested, in seduction, one party is always a little more self conscious than the Laurens Tan, Well ... the image Is one thing (detail), 1992. Courtesy Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney. other, and this difference determines which becomes love 's victim and which becomes love 's executioner. When the viewer gazes at a lock of Elvis' black hair or the buckle of his belt, it's an even money bet who will come out on top. Strip away the romantic cliches, and a gossamer montage of subtle and perverse attractions can be traced across the surface of every stroke, every encounter.

The last word ought perhaps to got to Susan Charlton, who had the eye and the intuition to choose this rather unlikely but very apt collection of artists. Or rather, the last word should go to the Elvis she conjures up in the catalogue:

Every time one among you has seen me, isn't it true that your eyes have been met by my own? Yet, you do not tell of this in your many stories of me. Why will you not see that I am looking back at you?

notes: 

1. Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession, Viking, New York, 1991 , p.5

2. McKenzie Wark, "Eivis: Listen to the Loss", Art & Text, No. 31 , December 1988, pp. 24-28