It's all a matter of size: the first things you notice at the Royal Festival Hall's installation of Joni Mabe's Elvis ephemera and artworks - or her Traveling Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis, to give its full title - are the big pieces, like the bed with a quilt whose panels bear the names of Elvis's movies, and the two huge Elvis-bust lamps which flank it. At the side of such imposing artefacts, a mere wart can easily get lost in the shuffle.
The wart, of course, is Elvis's. Or was. Allegedly. When you eventually locate it, in one of the perspex display-cases, it's in a test-tube alongside a putative Elvis toe-nail, found by Mabe in the carpet of the Jungle Room at Graceland. 'I'm not saying 100 per cent that this is Elvis's toe-nail clipping,' admits the artist in a deep Southern drawl, 'but I believe it is. It was embedded in one of the fibres in the carpet. I know they vacuum, but it didn't pick it up.' She claims to have visited Graceland some 40 times, which might seem excessive, but when you're crawling around sifting through the fibres of carpets for the little things the cleaners might have missed, it calls for a little more dedication than that of your average rubber-necking tourist.
As for the wart, Mabe's in no doubt as to its veracity. 'I honestly believe that is Elvis's wart, yes,' she affirms. 'It's just too crazy not to be his wart. This doctor cut it out - he didn't burn it out, because it was a huge thing. I thought it was a joke at first, but then I looked at pictures and realised that, yes, he really did have a wart on his hand before 1958, and in pictures after 1958, it's gone. Everything adds up] And I paid a lot of money for it, which is another reason I believe it really is Elvis's wart. I wouldn't have spent a ton of money if I didn't believe it was]' So here it rests, flanked by toe-nail and tack in its perspex reliquary, just begging for some mad scientist to come along and clone a new Elvis from his wart.
Mabe's interest in Elvis started when he died in 1977. She was in her driveway, washing and waxing her car, when the news came over the radio and they started playing non-stop Presley. Prior to that, she had exhibited little or no interest in him, not even taking up the opportunity to see him in concert the year before his death. 'But I have the ticket stubs, which are worth a lot of money now.'
The ticket stubs are probably somewhere in the exhibition, though locating them would be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack, so overwhelming is the tide of ephemera. At the last count, Mabe estimates her collection at around 30,000 pieces. 'I collect everything and anything Elvis,' she says. 'I don't filter out the negative things about him.' This is clearly true: alongside the more tasteful tapestries and images are such items as two bottles of Elvis Presley Love Me Tender Moisturising Milk Bath - quite a good joke, really - and a pair of furry man-made-fibre slippers with protuberant Elvis-heads, which Mabe used to wear to exhibition openings until their bottoms started getting dirty. 'You could get Elvis earmuffs, too, with an Elvis on each side,' she explains. 'These were dollars 20, and I wanted the earmuffs, too, but I couldn't afford them.
'These went fast - they produced them, and then they had second thoughts, that perhaps they were bad taste. It's just like the tabloids - they know that if they put his image on the cover it's going to be a great seller. One of my favourite things, as far as that whole statement about merchandising goes, is this little plastic billfold with Elvis in fluorescent green lettering, then almost as big as the word Elvis, it says 'Elvis' and 'Elvis Presley' are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc., 1990. The copyright should be a little tiny thing, but here it's almost bigger than the billfold itself.'
The billfold, of course, is an official product from the Elvis estate, who have not been slow to challenge those they see as infringing on their copyright to the 'name, likeness and image' of the dead singer. Mabe herself had a show cancelled at the Brooks Museum in Memphis, when the estate neglected to give written permission. 'I think they realise that I'm operating in a different world to them,' she believes. 'I'm in the art world, which is usually a highbrow crowd; different people go to art museums than go to Graceland. But I'm not into marketing or making money from it. I'm an artist, and whether I make any money or not, I'm going to create.'
Dotted among the store-bought ephemera are some of Mabe's own canvases. Currently, they comprise computer blow-ups of Elvis images decorated with brightly coloured glitter, which she refers to as mosaics; earlier, more famous works, such as the photo-collages Love Letter to Elvis and Elvis Tours Central America, Brings Hope to the Homeless, Food to the Hungry, were sold long ago to collections in New York and Los Angeles, in order to finance her own exhibitions, such as the 1984 Atlanta show, I Wanted to Have Elvis's Baby but Jesus Said it Was a Sin.
Both the mosaics - inspired, she claims, by those in Italian churches - and the photo-collages give some indication of the religious nature of her devotion, which reaches its apogee in the beautiful Warholian image of The Official Elvis Prayer Rug and the found-art sculpture Elvis Play-pen with Einstein and Jesus Walking on the Water, which combines the three figurative elements (representative, perhaps, of body, mind and soul) in a gaudy shrine on the installation's rear wall. Though these are, in part, satiric comments on American evangelism, Mabe honestly believes Elvis will become 'the first Protestant saint'.
Not everybody shares her enthusiasm: as we conclude our talk, a 'committed Christian' appears at her shoulder to loudly proclaim how deeply the Prayer Rug offends him. Imagine, then, how much more offended he might be if he knew the true extent of her Elvis infatuation: 'I actually fell in love with him,' she admits, when asked whether her interest is primarily an Art thing or an Elvis thing. 'So it was sort of an obsessional relationship with a dead man.' She chuckles. 'It's real safe sex]'
'Everything Elvis' is part of the American South Festival, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, to Aug 29. Waterloo Tube. Daily 10am-10pm
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