David Gauntlett



Many thanks to Vicky Charnock and other staff at Tate Liverpool for their help with this research.

The text here (by David Gauntlett © 2002) is part of the material which, when accompanied by analysis and discussion of the findings, will form an academic article to be published in 2003-4.



This study considers some aspects of children's relationship to media stars and celebrities, by considering the results of a project in which children created their own artworks connected to this theme. The art-making activity took place as part of the August 2002 'community' activities offered by contemporary art gallery Tate Liverpool. Alongside an exhibition entitled 'Pin-up: Glamour and Celebrity Since the Sixties' (on display from March 2002 - January 2003), the gallery ran a number of activities in an adjacent workshop room, entitled 'Star Salon'. (Tate Liverpool is the home of the National Collection of Modern Art in the North of England, and the largest gallery of modern and contemporary art outside London; website at www.tate.org.uk/liverpool).

This method of asking young people to make their own creative or media products, accompanied by observation and discussion of this process, has been used by this researcher before (see Gauntlett 1997, 1999) to gain some insights into children's responses to media images and messages. For example, in the project described in Video Critical (Gauntlett 1997), children aged between 7 and 11 were asked to make videos, in small groups, about 'the environment'. Close observation of the children's decision-making processes, and filming, as well as the finished video films themselves, allowed some insights into the ways in which children had adopted some responses to the environment - and not others - informed by coverage of this area which they had seen in children's factual and entertainment media. The method also allowed the children involved to demonstrate their impressive media literacy, and to generate their own repudiation of the other kind of research, particularly from the discipline of psychology, which has traditionally disenfranchised young people and not recognised their capacities in relation to the mass media. Other research has examined websites produced about media stars by fans, as a way into understanding how some people experience elements of popular media within their everyday lives (see Gauntlett, 2002; Pullen, 2000, 2003; Hills, 2002). In related (but different) research, members of the Glasgow Media Group have asked participants to write their own news headlines or reports to accompany actual news photographs or headlines which they are given, or sometimes asked to write scripts to accompany other material (see for example Kitzinger, 1990, 1993; Philo, 1990, 1996; Miller, 1994). These studies aim to show how the public have been influenced by (or, at least, have remembered the discourses of) media coverage of particular topics.

Imagined spaces

This project focuses on the activity entitled 'Through the Keyhole', in which visitors to the 'Star Salon' at Tate Liverpool were invited to imagine, and draw, the insides of celebrities' homes. This activity was inspired by the work of Dexter Dalwood, who since the late 1990s has been producing a number of paintings in which he imagines the interiors of the homes of pop stars, celebrities, and other iconic figures. These works include Paisley Park (1998), the home of the pop star formerly known as Prince, Neverland (Michael Jackson's Bedroom) (1999), Bill Gates' Bedroom (2000), Mao Tse-Tung's Study (2000), Ulrike Meinhof's Bedsit (2000), Gorbachev's Winter Retreat (2000) and several more (see Dalwood, 2000; Tate, 2002). The series also includes domestic locations connected with rock star deaths, such as Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse (2001), Ian Curtis's Bedroom (2001) and Brian Jones' Swimming Pool (2000). These paintings are emphatically not based on research about these real (or once-real) locations. Instead, Dalwood paints these places as we imagine them to be. Of course, the imagination is his rather than 'ours', but the artist suggests that he is representing the common public imagination of these iconic spots.

In a 2001 interview, Dalwood was asked how he became interested in the idea of 'unseen interiors'. He replied:

I started painting from memory; I used to do paintings of things that I'd seen. And then I started to think about fantasy, and from that I suddenly thought I could do things that were much more concerned with a collective consciousness, rather than a personal thing. I wasn't interested in a personal language so much as the collective idea of something iconic: something you'd heard of but hadn't necessarily got a picture for in your head. (Eyestorm, 2001).

Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse is a good example of the imaginary nature of these scenes. The painting features a guitar, lying next to a sun lounger, facing the glass wall of the eponymous greenhouse, which looks out onto the famous Seattle city skyline - as we would see it on a postcard, with the famous Space Needle in the middle. This is not actually the view which Kurt Cobain would have seen from his home, as Dalwood happily admits:

I have been to Seattle, actually, and I have driven near where his house is (laughs). And it's a very different, more secluded area to the one in the painting - it's on a back bay somewhere. I got that view, the skyline, from a magazine, but I was actually thinking a little bit of the TV show Frasier. (Ibid).

The point, of course, is that most of us don't picture Cobain in an actual, realistic picture of his part of Seattle; instead, we picture his home town as stored in fragments of memory from movies, magazines and TV shows. To make things even more confusing, although 'Kurt Cobain's greenhouse' is a location known to the public as the place where the singer's body was found, in fact Cobain didn't really have a greenhouse at all. His body was found in a room above the garage, which had french windows and later came to be known as 'the greenhouse' despite not really being one. Dalwood has therefore created an image which reflects what the public might imagine 'Kurt Cobain's greenhouse' to be like, whilst having very little connection with reality. Of course, this is fine, and only reinforces the point that the significance of these places is in their vibrant life within the public imagination, much more than in ordinary reality.

Despite being 'hyper-real', imagined versions of possibly-real places, though, Dalwood's paintings still also remind us of the mundane realities of everyday living. In the case of Kurt Cobain, say, we routinely connect the star with a blurred idea of an excessive, crazy, self-destructive rock'n'roll lifestyle. To see the sun lounger in his greenhouse - even though these things are imaginary - reminds us that the stars are ordinary people too. Other paintings in the series offer similar surprises - Bill Gates's Bedroom, for example, is minimalist and technological, as we might imagine it, but on the whole we probably don't think about Bill Gates having a bedroom at all.

Children and celebrities

At Tate Liverpool, children were similarly encouraged to imagine the homes - and therefore, to an extent, lifestyles - of celebrities. The instructions for the 'Through the Keyhole' activity, on a sign fixed to the wall, read as follows:

Through the Keyhole!

This game is about the private person behind the star.

Choose a famous person from the list below [or visitors were invited to think of one themselves] and then choose a room in the house from the lucky dip bag.

Imagine what kind of room your celebrity might own and draw it using pens, pencils, crayons or pastels!

The gallery's Information Assistants would also typically explain the task to visitors, and offer them the list of celebrities and the box containing names of rooms on pieces of card (kitchen, lounge, bedroom, bathroom, attic, study, garage, garden, shed).

Issues arising from what children put into their artworks will be discussed in a forthcoming article. Areas discussed include:

  • Consumer culture and advertising
  • Gender issues
  • The nature of celebrity
  • Thinking about lifestyles


Dalwood, Dexter (2000), Dexter Dalwood: New Paintings, 12 October - 18 November 2000, London: Gagosian Gallery.

Eyestorm (2002), 'Two-Minute Interview: Dexter Dalwood: From the Mind's Eye', The Saatchi Gallery Eyestorm Collection, http://www.eyestorm.com/saatchi/interview_ dalwood.asp

Gauntlett, David & Hill, Annette (1999), TV Living: Television, Culture and Everyday Life, London: Routledge.

Gauntlett, David (1997), Video Critical: Children, the Environment and Media Power, Luton: John Libbey Media.

Hills, Matthew (2002), Fan Cultures, London: Routledge.

Kitzinger, Jenny (1990) 'Audience Understandings of AIDS Media Messages: A Discussion of Methods', Sociology of Health and Illness, vol. 12, pp. 319-35.

Kitzinger, Jenny (1993) 'Understanding AIDS: Researching audience perceptions of Acquired Immune Deiciency Syndrome', in Eldridge, John (ed.) Getting the Message: News, Truth and Power, London: Routledge.

Miller, David (1994) Don't Mention the War, London: Pluto Press.

Philo, Greg (1990) Seeing and Believing: The influence of television, London: Routledge.

Philo, Greg (ed.) (1996) Media and Mental Distress, London: Addison Wesley Longman.

Pullen, Kirsten (2000), 'I-Love-Xena.com: Creating Online Fan Communities', in Gauntlett, David, ed., Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, London: Arnold.

Pullen, Kirsten (2002), 'Everybody's Gotta Love Somebody, Sometime: Online Fan Community', in Gauntlett, David, & Horsley, Ross, eds, Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age (Second Edition), London: Arnold.

Tate (2002), Remix: Contemporary Art and Pop, curated by Simon Wallis, London: Tate Publishing.

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