LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama stands fully formed in wax towards the exit of the entertaining, kitschy tourist trap that is the Hollywood Wax Museum. Celebrity gazing is a thoroughly American tradition, and as such, the Hollywood Wax Museum has three other locations in places arguably more patriotic than LA: Branson, Missouri; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Pigeon Force, Tennessee. Another copy of Obama — one crafted from butter — appeared on the streets of downtown Chicago in 2012, at the time of the President’s reelection, as part of art duo Industry of the Ordinary’s mid-career survey Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: Industry of the Ordinary. Wheeled down the street in a freezer, Obama was able to greet no one; he was deposited behind a glass door at the Chicago Cultural Center, where his carved gaze looked off into the distance. At the Hollywood Wax Museum, his hand is permanently stuck out to all who walk by. For those brave or stupid enough not to care about the security cameras, an opportunity to touch the president’s waxy hand presents itself, if only for a brief surveilled moment.
The novelty of our president cast in wax, standing before me much shorter than I imagined he’d be, wore off in less than a minute, and then I was eager to find more celebrities. Obama stood in front of me as an object, not a real person, but if he had been in the flesh, would I have done anything differently? The Wax Museum is a testament to our American behavior towards celebrities of all kinds, who are seen as characters and objects in the popular imagination. Unlike the way we behave with ordinary people, we treat the celebrity as something to behold, someone we’re so used to seeing on screens that any variation of their likeness — whether in three-dimensional butter or wax, or in photographs that don’t sync up with our current image, or in person — causes us to feel confused, alarmed, excited, ecstatic, and aroused all at once.
If I were actually face-to-face with Barack Obama, would I want to do more than touch his hand and take a photograph with him? Would I compliment him on what he’s done for America, tell him how different he looks from his wax sculpture in Hollywood or his butter sculpture that was part of a conceptual art project in Chicago? No matter how Obama is contextualized, he will always be a celebrity-as-object in the public’s view — one to think and wonder about, but never to truly know.
The Hollywood Wax Museum is located at 6767 Hollywood Boulevard (Los Angeles, California).