much in the way that Elvis Presley's own gold Cadillac was put on tour in the late 1950s, when Elvis himself was off serving in the Army in West Germany, there's an art exhibition called "Elvis + Marilyn: 2 x Immortal" that's been traveling through the U.S. the past couple of years. Oddly, rather than reaching an apotheosis in Memphis on Aug. 16, 1997, at the wake-cum-fair soon to convulse the town on the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death (if truth be told, Marilyn is just along for the ride), the show recently closed in Honolulu -- after turning up in Boston, Houston, Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, New York, Tulsa, Okla., Columbus, Ohio, Nashville, Tenn., and San Jose, Calif. Nevertheless, "Elvis + Marilyn" says as much about the presence of the icon and the disappearance of the human being as anyone needs to hear.
"Elvis + Marilyn" is housed in museums, not amusement parks or county fairs, but it's no less vulgar for that -- vulgar in the sense of exploitative, morally cheap and emotionally false. Here the bad art puts a film of corruption over the good. A lot of the art looks like bad advertising, and as if it's the artist who's being advertised: As if playing around with a blank cultural symbol -- or making it more blank, blanking it out in favor of the self-presentation of the artist over the muteness of the symbol -- might be a good career move.
There's a deep lack of empathy on the part of many of the artists here toward their putative subjects. The primary artists in question -- Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe -- are quickly disembodied and dehumanized. Whatever sense of them you might have as real people, as failed and conflicted individuals who once did remarkable things, seems to disappear as soon as you enter the museum galleries. Your own emotional responsiveness -- what any work of art needs in order to be completed, to come to life -- is frozen. The result is that not only do the artworks -- paintings, photo montages, mass media appropriations, assemblages, constructions, murals -- seem fake, as if they were produced not out of desire but on commission, so do the self-inventions of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
In this house of the dead, one piece stopped me cold, and for a long time: Joanne Stephens' 1991 "Homage to Elvis." On top of a gilded, full-sized television set, she has built the most Byzantine altar, it too all in gold and studded with jewels. Dressed in the raiment of an Arabian caliph, a young Elvis doll holds a guitar and a microphone; cherubim surround him. Doves perch over praying hands reaching toward the deity; a halo of gold 45s is topped by a star. The assemblage is beautiful, absurd, entrancing, its detail obsessive, its received, third-hand, automatic conception undeniable. In other words, the work is too obsessive to be fake and too received to be real; it is absolutely contradictory and it makes no sense. That's what draws you in: Why would anyone work so long and hard, so lovingly and so carefully, on a parody?
Because, the work answers, this is not a parody, this is a setting. In Stephens' piece, the altar contextualizes the heart of the work just as the exhibit as a whole contextualizes her piece, by providing a phony palace for a moment of life. It's the TV set on which the altar rests that holds the drama.
Inside the screen, surrounded by wisps of white gossamer floss, is a diorama, in black and white, but mostly dulled brown. At its center is an image so small and colorless you can barely make it out: a cardboard cutout of the famous photo of Elvis in 1955 or '56, dressed in the zoot-suit drapes of Memphis' Beale Street, his body loosed, his head thrown back in ecstasy and abandon. His stage is dirt, his proscenium arch the gaping door of a barn and his audience -- gathered at a respectful distance -- is a rapt crowd of cows, pigs and chickens. The scene is uncanny in its stillness, without a hint of coyness or condescension; you get the feeling that something extraordinary is taking place in this silent concert. You lean forward, as if you could go through the screen, to take part.
There is the sense that this impossible concert actually happened -- but only once. Or, perhaps, a thousand times, in Elvis' own imagination, before he could allow himself to imagine a real audience, made up of human beings who might judge him. Still, as you look at the little cardboard figure, you can almost see him lifting off the ground and taking flight. You notice the altar first, look at it carefully, taken by its heedless elaboration, its visual noise, its shameless luxuria; after attending the concert taking place below the altar, you cannot return to the altar without a sense of revulsion, without wanting to run.
The problem is, both the barnyard singer and the singing potentate are equally real; you cannot gainsay one with the other. Today, you can't have one without the other.
Come Aug. 16, facsimiles of the altar Elvis will be all over the television, your television, as tapes from Memphis showing crowds of caped and jumpsuited Vegas-era Elvises unwind across the globe. Watching, you might hear yourself saying, "My God! Those lucky cows! What wouldn't I give to have been one, to have been there in the barnyard!" But as Stephens imagined it and made it, the barnyard is a true aesthetic place, and you can get there by listening to the rehearsal version of "That's All Right" collected on "Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life In Music," the four-CD set RCA has issued to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of the barnyard singer, to mark the 20th year of the reign of the angelic king.
Here you are listening to a first take of what would become Presley's first single for Sun Records, before he had any audience at all. You are listening to music that, had things turned out as they could have, might never have led to a finished record, might never have been released in any form, might never have been heard. You are listening to the first chapter of a story that might never have been told. Here you are in the barnyard, a cow, a pig, a chicken as you choose, and your reaction, now, even as you live in a world changed by this story as it was told, as it was acted out, might be the same as any barnyard creature watching the skinny boy with the cool clothes dance in the dirt: "Who is this guy? What in the world does he think he's doing?"