Mythology of the Diva: Jamie Cooper’s exhibit “Whitney’s biennial”

Jamie Cooper - "Whitney's biennial" (courtesy of the artist)
Jamie Cooper – “Whitney’s biennial” (courtesy of the artist)

Ooof, alright. It has been a while here, so we’re going to dust off this rusty, snow covered bike and give it a little spit shine with the hope for a productive spring (I’m very hopeful – what can I say!) This project review has been sitting on the shelf since November, when I was able to attend the thesis defence of University of Regina MFA Candidate, Jamie Cooper. To spoil the ending, Jamie is now the proud owner of an MFA and is working out of Victoria, BC.
Before we get into Jamie’s thesis, I’d like to describe the exhibit a little. Entitled “Whitney’s Biennial”, this installation in the small U of R Fifth Parallel gallery space of the was a Bubbalicious tribute to the tragic pop star, Whitney Houston (1963-2012). While the gallery space is usually a traditional white cube, “Whitney’s Biennial” featured a wall to floor make-over in peppy pink. Walking into the space was a little like stepping into a womb, with pink covering every surface except for a corner of the gallery carefully demarked with the traditional white. Although there were also some installation elements in the other side of the gallery, this white void instantly drew the eye towards it. As you approached, a small sign on the wall asked the viewer to remove their shoes before entering the cordoned off area. Although there were no other signs of blocked passage, this small sign, along with the pink/white dividing line that flowed from wall to floor was as effective as velvet ropes. It instantly felt like this space was different and required obedience.
A small plinth resided in the space, holding an elaborate vase of flowers and a glass bowl of candy. The walls showcased several collage and pencil drawings, depicting magazine cutouts of the pop star, arranged in each frame with mechanical repetition like silkscreens. The background for each collage was hand coloured a different 80’s neon. For me, the framed works recalled wallpaper, although the hand-made collage and colouring also referenced some interesting obsessive and tributary elements. Linking the tributary nature of the sacred space installation, the opposite site of the gallery showcased a plexi-encased table holding magazines and books featuring tabloid histories on Whitney. Next to the table stood a plinth holding a bowl of pencil shavings (presumably from the drawings), referencing the act of making the works and the amount of love and labour dedicated to the deceased cultural icon. This part of the installation acted as a primer to the exhibit, with framed and coloured copies of Whitney Houston’s obituary.

Installation view: Jamie Cooper - "Whitney's biennial" (courtesy of the artist)
Installation view: Jamie Cooper – “Whitney’s biennial” (courtesy of the artist)

Interestingly, when Cooper began his thesis work, Houston was still alive. Her death came at the beginning of 2012, when he had already done much of the research needed for his MFA program. However, I would argue that in many ways, Houston’s life and death as a person has little to do with this work. Jamie’s verbal defense focused on the mythology built up around Whitney, and how her status as a pop icon affected his childhood. This ties his exhibition to nostalgia and mythology, how identity is shaped by pop culture, and the ritualistic way that we use and identify with modern cult heros, rather than the life and death of an individual. Within his exploration of queer identity, Jamie described Whitney’s role as a “Diva” – a layered personality that appeals to queerness because it is not quite female – it is something bigger and more mythological. It is beyond human, and in that, can be elevated to worship. Jamie also noted that as a queer boy, it was easier to worship a woman than a man without being noticed by society.

It is a fascinating thought, and one that I found especially insightful. I have to admit, I’ve never really idolized celebrity in the way that many of my childhood friends did. It was difficult for me to see the worth in worshiping someone for their attractiveness or star power, but the idea of this worship as a replacement for ancient mythology or religion makes a lot of sense to me now as an adult. It is especially poignant for me to see how someone that would have trouble fitting into social norms, like a queer child, would need to formulate a hero, since those role-models (especially in the 1980’s/90’s) did not exist, or rather were not visible. Our role-model figures are historically influenced by, or come from, religion or culture, and since most religions ban these types of alternative personalities, and the goal of pop culture is to appeal to the widest, most lucrative audience, so going against the grain is not exactly common. If we assume that the role of religion and mythology is to teach us how to properly live our lives and fit into society so that our culture can function smoothly, it makes sense to me that in a world where religion and other mythology is dismissed, that star-worship could act as an extension of that impulse.
Since neither religion or star-worship directly support queer identification, Jamie points out the necessity to create your own mythology and icons. Here, because of the beyond-femaleness of Whitney as a Diva, she becomes safe for worship by queer males. Although he did not directly state it, I can only assume that as a young boy, idolizing a woman provides some shelter or heterosexual camouflage, allowing the devotee to avoid attacks, while simultaneously providing a role model that pushes beyond gender roles. As a hyper-female, Whitney crosses the line into drag and costuming. She obviously takes on and enacts a specific role, and holds a double-identity, something which would likely be attractive to a marginalized youth seeking a supportive role model. Although Whitney never directly set herself up to be an icon for queer identity, her performance offered up enough ambiguity that her followers could use it as such. In his discussion, Jamie highlighted the importance of this in his youth, where he had to go through the active cultural labour of creating his own mythology as opposed to having pre-packaged “goods” marketed to queer audiences. Here, the work notes the cultural labour through the hand-cut and coloured collages (even though it would easily be possible to silkscreen or Photoshop the images). It was a specific choice to hand-make the images, and collect all the markers of that activity (the pencil shavings) as part of the tribute. It is a work that lies beyond the images in front of the viewer, and emphasizes the process it took to get there.
This nuanced show and thesis offered a deep analysis of both the emotional and critical aspects of the Diva. Had I just seen the show without hearing the defense, I would have gained a sense of the importance of Whitney as a nostalgic icon and mythologized hero, but without the thoughtful insights on the profound affect it had on queer identity and without fully grasping the importance hero worship in today’s culture. A huge thanks to Jamie Cooper and his thesis defense committee for letting me observe and learn.


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