Back in the eighties when I was unemployed I used to hang out a lot at the old Scala cinema in Kings X coz they did ultra-cheap day time movie screenings…. the programmes varied from day to day, but not that much from month to month, but they showed some great films, and among them a slew of Andy Warhol movies such as Chelsea Girls…. Aside from night screenings of Empire on the outside of the South Bank complex a few years ago, my Warhol viewing experiences recently had been restricted to the Raro reissues on DVD from Italy…. So I figured I’d check out the Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms exhibition before it closed. After all, this Hayward Galley show at the South Bank Centre had been heavily advertised as featuring many of Warhol’s hard-to-see films. Unfortunately, the experience of so much Warholia crammed so tightly together left me feeling disappointed and frustrated.
The first room featured projections of Factory Screen Tests, Warhol memorabilia and a few paintings. Some material was hung so high you couldn’t see it properly, other stuff was hung too low, and the arrangement of the projection made it hard to stand back and enjoy the Screen Tests at a distance. In case you don’t know (most of you do, I know), the Screen Tests are silent portraits made between 1964 and 1966 in which the often famous subjects look at the camera without moving for two minutes and forty-five seconds. The films are slowed down so that they last four minutes. The Hayward was showing a selection of 40 Screen Tests, so that provided coming on for three hours of fun for any visitor who wanted to watch them all from beginning to end.
The second room was dominated by Warhol’s cable TV productions from 1979 until his death. This cheap TV was laid out like a themed trash chain restaurant from the 1980s… the place was done up with stars and stripes in the form of its hangings and stools…. It was clearly impossible to see all of Warhol’s gaudy TV productions in a single visit (I didn’t clock any info giving running times for this material, but at a guess there was 24 hours worth of viewing, and possibly a lot more)… but I did see plenty of fashion that didn’t much interest me, a lot of Debbie Harry who on the whole looked good, London mod renewal band Secret Affair performing in New York at the start of the eighties… oh let’s fast forward, there was an interview with Cindy Sherman, and while it was as vacant as any other trash TV culture feature, I can’t recall seeing film of Sherman talking about her work anywhere else, so on that score it was curious… but MOR music bores Hall & Oates were on the same show… On another show I was groovin’ to KONK, then The Ramones appeared and did Bonzo Goes To Blitzberg with like totally amateur handheld camerawork and a couple of girls dancing… oh wacky! Now if the Warhol Foundation stuck this stuff on YouTube I could really enjoy myself with it… but a gallery is the wrong environment to fully enjoy super dumb sleazebag eighties crapola TV.
In a third room were the 1960s films… 19 of them projected in a single space with the sound turned down so low that you could barely hear it, but what audio there was still bled between movies… The set up was visually distracting and might have made for a groovy media total immersion environment if only the volume had been jacked right up on one or more of the films… The sound being so quiet made for a lousy experience, and you couldn’t appreciate anything as an individual item either because of the different projections competing for your attention. The sofas dotted about the place not only made the room feel even more visually cluttered, combined with the black walls they created the impression you were in a really tacky eighties bar. The contextualising material said the combined running times of the films on show ran to nearly 23 hours… There were digital clocks on the wall by each film to tell you how long it had to run, but by watching the change overs between the beginning and end of a few movies, I discovered that the ones I checked were anything up to a couple of minutes out of sync with their timers.
Again, for those that haven’t seen Warhol’s films (hard to imagine for someone like me who grew up on ‘em), between 1963 and 1968 he is believed to have shot coming on for 100 films. Of these, perhaps the most notorious is Sleep, which consists of a stationary camera showing poet John Giorno asleep. Likewise, Blow Job boasts 35 minutes of static shots of a man’s head (his face, not someone giving head). Empire is an eight hour stationary shot of the Empire State building in New York with the sun setting behind it, and then rising again; the action consists of the change from day to night and back again, and lights being put on and off in the building. These early films are silent. When sound was introduced, much of it consisted of hipster talk between members of Warhol’s Factory set. Warhol also experimented with split-screen projection, most famously in Chelsea Girls. All the films mentioned here are included in the Hayward show, alongside the likes of Kitchen and Bike Boy. However, my personal favourite Vinyl was missing. Almost compensating for that was Taylor Mead looking totally wack in Nude Restaurant.
From the summer of 1968 onwards, Warhol worked only as a producer on the ongoing series of his Factory films, employing Paul Morrissey to direct them. None of the Morrissey directed films are included in the Hayward show, which is strange since they clearly form a bridge between Warhol’s work as a director prior to 1968 and his cable TV productions of the 1980s. And incidentally I haven’t even mentioned all the moving image material in the show, since there are also Factory Diaries and Videos on side walls of the room containing Warhol’s cable TV.
While Warhol’s TV productions are clearly junk and intended as such, the 1960s movies were carefully composed and in them various formal issues were worked through. The installation of the Warhol films in the Hayward made them look every bit as trashy as his cable TV. So for now the best way of catching this material is via the Raro DVD reissues…. The idea of so overloading a show with video and audio material (yes there were hours of Warhol tape recordings too) that it is impossible to take it all in, even over repeated visits to the exhibition, is kinda funny… but beyond that this show sucked. The Hayward is a large gallery and the upstairs was closed during the Warhol show, so the curators made a conscious decision to cram the work together, they had the option of spreading it out over twice as much space. Warhol was an ironic artist, but if you based your judgement solely on this badly installed exhibition, you’d think he was into trivialisation and nothing else…. Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms even managed to make the Warhol painting it included look bad. There should have been a warning sign outside saying: “Welcome to Planet Hollywood and the new populist curation at the South Bank!”
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/ – you know it makes (no) sense!
Tags: Andy Warhol, Bike Boy, Blow Job, Bonzo Goes To Blitzberg, Chelsea Girls, Cindy Sherman, Debbie Harry, Empire, Hall & Oates, Hayward Gallery, John Giorno, KONK, Nude Restaurant, Ramones, Scala cinema, Secret Affair, Sleep, South Bank Centre, Vinyl