The idea of celebrity is completely fused with our perspective of everyday reality. Celebrity is a component of fame, a more momentary and satisfying instance in which the illumination of flash bulbs, the “royal treatment” of celebrity peers, and the adoration of unnamed masses all act to separate us from those from whom we bear away a large part of our common nature. As a subject for art, celebrity presents a slippery slope full of hidden agendas, mixed messages, and a breadth of cultural context which is rarely plumbed, for fear it may reveal the collusion between greatness and its opposite. Yet one artist today has made celebrity his main focus. David Henry Brown Jr, over the last few years, has developed an expansive body of work which explores these ideas.
The first part of this exploration took the form of a series of actions, subtly interwoven into the social fabric of given public events. Brown invented a company in ‘98 called Carpet Rollers, which for $99 offered to roll out a red carpet for private parties. “We were able to get into private people’s affairs,” says Brown. “The kind of people that liked to enjoy life. We’d come up to a party with our red carpet and people would gather around us. Hundreds of people would come and watch and we would say that we didn’t know who was coming. The red carpet was a symbol. It created a discussion and people would say stuff about who they thought was coming. It was like “Waiting for Godot.” They were all waiting for this grand thing to happen that never happened, and the real thing was the waiting.” (1)
This experiment revealed a basic truth about the nature of fame: it requires an event. The event is rarely pure happenstance, though it can be intentionally caused by a celebrity-wannabe. For instance there is the story about how Jean-Claude Van Damme met a Hollywood producer and said words to the effect that if he could kick above the man’s head, would he put him in a movie? He did, of course, and that was the beginning of his story. Fame may be elusive but celebrity endures for as long as there are people who wish it to endure. There are also the casualties of celebrity, such as Princess Diana. Then there are people who became known for an act of cruelty, like OJ Simpson, or for self abuse, like Robert Downey Jr. We need only to say their names for everyone to know who they are, without any reference to the careers which made them stars—perhaps even heroes—in the eyes of many Americans, and around the world. Success is a form of heroism in a culture where there is a such a vast divide between the rich and the poor, between the ones who merely get by, and those who thrive within their own milieu.
Brown’s next project, “Alex”, was more closely related to the sense of social recognition which creates the phenomenon of celebrity. He masqueraded as a celebrity, but not any particular celebrity, someone with actual accomplishments, but a person whose fame rested specifically upon his family name: Von Furstenberg. Brown cultivated the casual earnestness and lack of pretense which qualifies those who are born to positions of social celebrity. In effect, just by becoming Alex Von Furstenberg, he carried the event of fame around with him, even if, in his ostensible realness as Alex, he were to meet someone who was fooled into believing that he was who he said he was. The images which resulted have him shaking hands or standing shoulder to shoulder with the well to do, the curvaceous, the politically aspiring, and the culturally revered.
In “Host,” Brown explores the cult of the pose. For this project, Brown masqueraded as a guide at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square. Brown attended visitors as they toured the museum, providing historical narration on figures as diverse as Mayor Giuliani, the actors Nicholas Cage and Whoopi Goldberg, and political entities Fidel Castro and Jesse Jackson. The images which resulted from these encounters (expertly captured by Susanna Wimmer), reveal an interesting dynamic in which Brown, once critiquing the notion of celebrity by having his picture taken with known celebrities under the social agenda of masquerading as a socialite, now poses with wax figures of known famous entities. Yet the presence of these tourists, who may visit the museum to pose also enlivens the intentional quality of this work. With whom is Brown posing? Brown’s photographs may include an image of him, but are rarely about him, but about the context he creates. Brown’s images taken of celebrities and the images taken of tourists with wax models which, in collusion include him, are all images.
Our association with a given wax model such as Pope Jean Paul II, Morgan Freeman, or Woody Allen, is proof of how we relate to the world, who our heroes are, and the images in “Host” are really of the tourists, who represent the most chaotic and unpredictable aspects of social interaction inspired by this situation. Brown operates as a cipher, directing our attention to the expressions of those around him, and paying homage to the figures themselves, as if they were really people like Woody Allen or Barbara Streisand, and not just charismatic replicas. The figures with whom people posed said a lot about what they thought was important. morgan pictures the actor Morgan Freeman dressed as the chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy”, his eyes looking off into the distance in a pose reminiscent of George Washington crossing the Delaware was visited by two African American women, a mother and daughter pair, who are framed by Brown in a warm embrace, one woman beside him, the other holding Freeman’s chest as if he were her sweetheart. In chris, Brown joins a father and his paraplegic son with the wheelchair bound image of Christopher Reeve; the boy wears a T-shirt with the classic logo of Superman on it. The actor’s identity post-accident emboldens him as a figure of extraordinary dimension whose desire to surpass his limitations as a cripple have surpassed his identity as a portrayer of the comic book hero, Superman. For fidel Brown joins a Cuban family in a group salute at the statue of Fidel Castro, vogues out with elle, sits in impassioned introspection with woody, beams with glee alongside elton, is cool or tough with lenny or nick.
A few other elements rounded out the exhibition. The first was a series of photographs in which Brown posed in a frozen state and then unfroze to scare various groups of tourists, who were always shocked when he did so. I’m sure that he was quite interested in what it was like to be one of the statues; after all, they are the objects of appreciation, the source for the degree of social intervention that occurs ad nauseum at Madame Tussaud’s, a type of interaction which is rarely if never viewed in art museums, or any formal museum environment, for that matter. The second were the artifacts of his experience, a letter stating the position of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in regard to Brown’s artful interloping, and a video Brown had made in which he is filmed in his role as guide, mocking out as a frozen statue, and interviewing one particular wax museum habitué who candidly states his preference for a world in which everyone was made into a wax replica, as it would simplify the necessary amount of social exchange and dissolve the expectations of proprietary interest. If we could all have a date with Elle McPherson, what would be the use of envy or insecurity?
The final image of the videotape shows Brown frozen in a relatively isolated corner of the museum, with the noise of the crowd and the lights aimed at known celebrities felt from far off. This image reveals the degree of fragility inherent in the need to pose, to take on a timelessness which separates us from others. The desire for celebrity leads us into labyrinths of self-reflection. The images which Brown’s reflection presents will pursue us into the future.
Notes: (1) Berlind, Robert. “David Brown Isn't Von Furstenberg, But He Loves to Pretend He Is!,” The New York Observer, 1999
Zingmagazine # 17, Autumn 2002