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Strike a pose

Madonna fans become stars of a mesmerizing video installation at the MFA

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By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2009
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At the Museum of Fine Arts, rowdy verses of “Like a Virgin’’ drift through the halls like a siren song. On one wall, dozens of Madonna fans sing lustily in a grid of video screens as museum visitors pause to gape. Some passersby stare in a slack-jawed trance. Some chuckle and tap their feet. Some cringe in vicarious embarrassment at the off-key renditions of “Justify My Love.’’ But everyone is rapt, hypnotized by the rows of faces and the dissonant strains of familiar tunes.

The installation, created by South African video artist Candice Breitz, is part of the exhibit “Contemporary Outlook: Seeing Songs,’’ which runs through Feb. 21 at the MFA. Called “Queen (A Portrait of Madonna),’’ the piece features 30 Madonna superfans - each filmed individually by Breitz - singing along to all 73 minutes of the pop icon’s “Immaculate Collection’’ album. Since we hear only the voices and not the music, the pauses between songs are particularly weighted; the people in the videos abandon their antics and become themselves again, laughing sheepishly or smoothing wayward strands of hair. The overall effect has the raw voyeuristic magnetism of reality TV - with a beat.

“I have no idea what it means,’’ says Nash Hott, 18, of Indianapolis, his eyes glazed as he watches the screens. “But I can’t turn away.’’

The videos - each with a life-size face positioned in front of a white curtain - present a colorful array of characters. Some add their own vocal flourishes, sassy “ooh-whoas’’ and “oh yeahs.’’ Others brandish such props as magic wands and feather boas. A man in the center, swaying as he sings, sports a voluminous mohawk, bright streaks of blush, and iridescent blue eye shadow. A heavily-bronzed woman jabs her fists to the beat, while another with a wild mop of hair tosses her head fiercely. A guy in a cowboy hat casts come-hither looks at the camera.

“If the music’s pumping it will give you new life,’’ they sing, embodying the theme of “Vogue.’’ “You’re a superstar, yes, that’s what you are, you know it . . .’’

“This piece is about our relationship to celebrities,’’ explains William Stover, the exhibit’s curator. “When you see these people onscreen, you understand the influence Madonna has had on them. [Breitz] keeps her own intervention to a minimum and lets the fans be who they are, and that’s liberating for us to watch.’’

Breitz is fascinated by the faceless swarms of people who consume pop culture fanatically and build their lives around it, Stover says. While the icons they emulate can be seen everywhere, the fans remain invisible.

To find her subjects, Breitz published ads in Italian newspapers and on Madonna fan sites. She filmed them in Milan, and many don’t speak a word of English except the lyrics to “The Immaculate Collection.’’ But amidst the spectacle of shimmying shoulders and belted high notes, their Italian origins aren’t obvious.

“This piece looks very American,’’ says Christopher Doyle of Salem. “There’s such a variety of backgrounds.’’

The crowd at the museum late one afternoon is almost as diverse as the videos. Children wander in and gawk. Older couples look on bemusedly. Teenagers huddle and point, snickering. Masae Kellog, 35, of San Francisco, bounces her shoulders along with the music. “This makes me forget about all the stress in my life,’’ she says. “It’s so upbeat and refreshing.’’

Lena Sawyer, 16, of Colorado Springs, smiles and shakes her head. “I can’t stop looking to see which one is me,’’ she says. “I think I’d be that girl.’’ She points to a subdued brunette singing demurely in a corner screen.

William Norris, a retired lawyer from Northampton, crosses his arms and peers over his spectacles. “You really get a sense of community watching this,’’ he says. “I’m neither a Madonna fan nor not a Madonna fan. But this is like a chorus, and it almost makes you feel as though you’re part of it.’’

Vihann Kong, of Watertown, grins as he looks from screen to screen. “This piece is fundamentally 21st century,’’ he said. “Everyone puts videos online to showcase themselves these days. But do these people even know that anyone is watching them? They’re just having fun, singing out loud. I’m not sure exactly why, but it makes me really happy to watch.’’

Some think the power of the piece comes from the collective charge of 30 voices joined in clumsy unison. Some feel that it’s the disorientation of hearing Madonna’s songs revamped and reassembled, filtered through so many different personalities. And others say it’s the dual illusion of privacy and performance: the way the people on the screens seem to be at once mugging for the camera and blissfully unaware of our ogling. But whatever the reason, the effect is mesmerizing.

“It’s different from some modern art where you think, ‘Hmm, I don’t really understand that,’ ’’ Kong says. “But here, everyone knows the words. Everyone understands.’’

And then, as the gallery swells with the chorus to “Like a Prayer,’’ Kong starts to sing along.

Laura Bennett can be reached at lbennett@globe.com.

CONTEMPORARY OUTLOOK: Seeing Songs

At the Museum of Fine Arts, through Feb. 21. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

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