Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal

BY PHILMON YIP

Andy Warhol, the face of Pop Art and one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, here in Singapore with one of the largest collections of his works ever. I think I can be forgiven for my excitement as I visited the ArtScience Museum for Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal.

The exhibition is titled after Warhol’s quote where he proclaimed that ‘In the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes’. It is interesting to note that the colloquial phrase ’15 minutes of fame’ was derived from that very statement of Warhol’s – another nod to Warhol’s longevity and relevance. Fame being so ephemeral and short-lived and being be exemplified in pop-culture where stars explode and fade almost instantaneously, makes the title of the exhibition very apt. Anybody mildly familiar with Warhol’s work would comprehend the association with pop-culture and stardom. Except that in Warhol’s case, his 15 minutes seems eternal, since today he is still a leading example of what contemporary art represents and what it can achieve.

Before delving into the exhibition proper, it is worthy to note that Warhol was a master provocateur who reveled in all things fake and forged. He promoted art as a commodity by mass-producing his works, in an attempt to democratise art and to revolutionise the industry. It is essential to keep those thoughts in mind as we scrutinise his works throughout the exhibition. From this elevated perspective, fueled by hindsight, we can get a better idea of what the man truly stands for beyond the exhibition’s neatly partitioned stages of his life. With Warhol, nothing is explicitly real; however, if we view this masquerade for what it is, we might find that it is even more enlightening.

The exhibition is touted to be the largest collection of Warhol’s iconic works on display ever in Singapore, with over 260 paintings, drawings, sculptures, film and videos, marking the 25 anniversary of the artist’s death. With that thought in mind, I arrived at the museum with high hopes of being impressed and a slight concern with how all these materials are going to be displayed and organised.

The ArtScience Museum itself, with its unique lotus-like architecture, was a fitting place for a Warhol exhibition – at least it looked unique, different and less conformist than say the colonial building of the Singapore Arts Museum. On a weekend, it was ridiculously crowded with long snaking lines; the only problem was that they were queuing for the Titanic Exhibition. Apparently Andy Warhol is still not that big of a draw here in Singapore.

An entire level was dedicated to the exhibition, which was divided into various sections representing the different stages of the artist’s life. They were arranged in chronological order, and viewers would moved in a circular motion from section to section, eventually returning to the starting point, which was marked with a huge screen showing Warhol being interviewed about his works. The interview was an interesting start to the exhibition, because it featured an earnest reporter peppering the Warhol with questions about his work and his views on art. All Warhol had to say was an uninterested ‘umm, yes’ or ‘umm, no’, interjected periodically with a cheeky grin flashing through. From the start we are confronted with a man who is clearly different, clearly pushing the boundaries. I remember thinking how someone so curt could be so articulate with his artworks.

The first section was regarding his early years, from the 1940s to the 1950s. A large room, sectioned off with standing walls displayed many of his line drawings, his first artworks as a commercial artist and the blotted line technique that he created. The decor of the room was coherently sparse and clean, in parallels to the stark line drawings of Warhol’s. I liked how the works chosen showed subject matters that would take shape in his later years, such as fashion and sexuality. The fact that in his early years he already pioneered a technique gave me a clear idea that I was observing a visionary, someone special.

The next section featured his more productive period, titled ‘The Factory Years’. It featured iconic masterpieces such as the Campbell’s Soup Can, portraits of various celebrities such as Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and my favourite of all his works, Jackie. Firstly, I have to compliment the layout of this area – upon entering the space; the viewer would see stacks piles of carton boxes from brands such as Kellog’s and Campbell’s, which helped to reiterate the idea of the commercialisation of art and of mass-production. The idea is continued by the artworks on display, such as the repetitive murals of the famous Campbell soup-cans and the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

The portraits of Jackie Kennedy, simply titled Jackie struck me as the most poignant, as the themes of death and resilience are always very potent and easy to relate with. Warhol was intrigued and greatly affected by the assassination of President Kennedy – but instead of focusing on the dead, he chose to focus on the living. No one better exemplified the suffering and the anguish of this tremendously loss better than the widow, Jackie Kennedy. Warhol’s multiple portraits of Jackie Kennedy, shown in multiple hues and shades conveyed the multifaceted nature of her loss. At the same time, he managed to transform her into an icon for the American people, a beacon of hope if you may in a troubling time. As such, I feel that of all his works, Jackie was the most sensitive and the one that I can most relate to.

Beside the section ‘The Factory Years’ is an extension consisting of a space that is supposed to mimic Warhol’s famous New York studio, the Silver Factory. Within it is also a photo-booth that sought to ‘provide an interesting interactive experience, the space will feature costumes for visitors to dress up and be “a star for 15 minutes”, a photo booth to capture the experience, a reproduction of the couch from the Silver Factory from which visitors can enjoy his avant-garde films, and the whimsical Silver Clouds (1966) piece made of floating helium balloons.’ It certainly sounded good in the official literature, but personally I felt that it was a complete failure. The ‘photo-booth’ is nothing but a ‘neo-print’ machine plastered with silver foil and glitter. To add insult to injury, everything inside was sickeningly cute and obviously created for teenage Asian girls. It had no relevance to Warhol’s alluring black and white photo-booth prints that were featured in the same space. The supposed photo-booth photos were A5 sized print-outs in a terrible mixture of gay, gaudy borders and effects. The replicas of the whimsical Silver Clouds were just silver balloons kept in the air by two rotating fans, which frequently failed and constantly dropping downwards onto the viewers. The only similarity this space has with Warhol was that they both provoked you, but in vastly different ways.

Following the haphazard rendition of the Silver Factory was a showcase of Warhol’s photography titled ‘Exposures’. I like the extra effort made to procure the actual cameras used by Warhol during this period; it was very interesting to see the simple equipment he used in real life to create his stunning artworks. The Polaroids were framed beautifully with enough negative space around them to impart a sense of gravitas to these small and intimate portraits. I also liked the display of his black and white images, showcasing his collection of celebrities and icons, reminding me again of his penchant for fame and glamour.

At the back of this area was the Time Capsule. I thought that the layout and display could be better, because it was situated deep at the back of the space and I almost missed it. However, the towering shelves of carton boxes on display were very immersive and gave the sense of scale of Warhol’s immense collection, where he had almost 600 of such time capsules. Within it is a collection of magazines and books belong to Warhol. I feel that this space could be bigger and the books and magazines displayed better. From where I stood, it just looked like a fire hazard.

The final section is ‘The Last Supper’, chronicling Warhol’s venture into television media with Andy Warhol’s T.V. and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which was played there. It also showed the diversity of his last decade of creation which included works such as the Endangered Species series, Rorschach series and Oxidation Paintings. The exhibition concludes with The Last Supper and Self Portrait. Personally, I really liked the Rorschach series because I felt that it was quintessentially Warhol. It was seductive yet vacant, it reflected our own desires and needs, it was like a mirror and it could be anything we want it to be. This is very much like Warhol himself, which showed in his self-portraits that he could be anything in his photographs.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the exhibition. It was comprehensive and with many well-chosen pieces that supported the various themes such as his early years, his factory years and so forth. For someone who is new to Andy Warhol, this exhibition would be a fantastic introduction to the man and his works. This is especially true for all the extra notes and write-ups featured all over the exhibition, which provide keen insights and commentary on selected works. For someone who is already familiar with Warhol, it still provides an intimate, revealing and enlightening look. The only improvement is to eliminate the very badly executed ‘Silver Factory’ and the ridiculous gift-shop and the end of the exhibition where they were selling Chinese chop-sticks and lame souvenirs where were completely irrelevant to Warhol and only served to dampen the entire experience.

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