Mar 1, 2011

Forms of exhibition on display: A visit to Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures

My experience of the exhibit Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures (Museum of Modern Art) was in tune with many of the questions raised in the book Film Curatorship: Archives, Museum, and the Digital Marketplace (Edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath, Michael Loebenstein). My visit to the MOMA, an institution dedicated to archiving, preserving, restoring and exhibiting images, moving and still as well as a strong education mission and an open access policy, was the ideal place to look at the ways in which all the areas of collecting, conserving and showing intersect.

Even though Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures is classified as an exhibition and not a film series, it could be thought of as both: the show consists of the “exhibit” of the artists’ Screen Tests and other works, and a periodic (or serial) screening of some of his longer works within the gallery space. All except for one of the films have been reformatted and transferred to DVD, and none of the films are screened in the museum’s theaters downstairs. From the outset it is clear that the show will combine aspects of the white cube and the black box, or the gallery space and the movie theater. I will talk about this further on, but first I want to note that this exhibition is a version of another one that originally premiered in 2003 under the title Andy Warhol: Screen Tests, and which was conceived by Mary Lea Bandy, Chief Curator of the Department of Film and Media back then ( The show’s current incarnation includes twelve Screen Tests, in addition to Eat and Blow Job, Kiss, Sleep, and the infamous Empire, and has traveled to different cities in the world. This attests to the consistent popularity of Warhol’s work (along with its status as fetish object for dilettantes who visit Anthology Film Archives, as we have recently learned).

The first thing a visitor encounters upon arriving on the sixth floor is one of the MOMA’s many souvenir shops, which are a reminder that a museum is also, like the cinema, a venue dedicated to mass consumption. This raises many questions about the forces of the market, an institution’s policy with regards to access and reaching wider audiences, and its curatorial and educational policies. My sense is that MOMA consistently creates enjoyable (if unchallenging) esthetic and social experiences for its public. There could be much to criticize here, but also much to applaud: the museum is consistently full. As a passing thought, it seemed to me that perhaps this institution had more affinity with the cinema’s historical form: as I made my way through the museum’s crowds, I felt like in a fairground fun-house, or even a multiplex, where one goes to see the blockbusters of art history.

Except for the souvenir shop, Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures occupies the entire sixth floor of the museum. It is housed high up, away from the movie theaters that are in the bottom floors. Visitors are greeted to the show by an interesting curatorial choice: the first object we encounter (a Screen Test for Ethel Scull, a pop art collector) is shown on an actual 16mm loop, projected onto a tripod screen. The projection renders grain, flicker, and is accompanied by the whirring of the projector, its mechanical respiration. At first, I’m not certain as to how to read this gesture: is it a kind of nostalgic tribute to the apparatus, to an “outdated” technology and media? It seemed to me that the projector and screen were being isolated and exhibited as museum artifacts in themselves, objects that may become obsolete soon, that are fraught with historical specificity, and therefore are displayed as having a kind of aureatic quality to them.

The display of the screen and projector as artifacts indicates a self-conscious decision on behalf of the curator to highlight the relevance of medium specificity, the pivot around which many of the debates on film and digital media rotate. One of the arguments that are being made here, I would suggest, is that the question of medium and technological specificity has to be dealt with in a museum exhibition that contains film objects, and that the issue of the transition from the analogue to the digital cannot be disavowed. I would also argue that it is the mode of exhibition that is on display here, and that “exhibiting” (showing, screening, display) is the latent content of Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures.

The issue of modes of exhibition and display as subject becomes more clear as we move into the next rooms. The first one contains medium screens that show DVD loops of parts of Sleep, Eat, and Blow Job. In the next room, the Screen Tests are shown in very large framed screens (seven feet high by nine feet wide) that “hang” slightly above eye level. The cinematic portraits of Allen Ginsberg, Nico, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Dennis Hopper, Susan Sontag, among others, are presented as four minute long looped videos. This is the “white cube” part of the show: the lighting is at the standard museum level (a level that I imagined was used for perusing detail in oil paintings). This is a walking, not a sitting experience, the screen is equated to an easel, and we are not asked to give these works our sustained attention. The conventions of a gallery/museum space are set in place: people were talking; there is a guard (although I’m not exactly sure what he is guarding). Similarly, the viewer/museumgoer can get a sense of the all the portraits that inhabit this space at the same time. The seriality of the movie theater is replaced by spatial simultaneity of several screens. The size of the screens is quite impressive, as is the quality of the projection. However, I am left with a desire to experience these images in the dark.

This desire is met in the final room of the gallery, which recreates a 50-seat film theater, the black box: the viewer is met with a large movie-size screen, invited to sit down and experience continued viewing, to keep to the convention of silence in this space. This space is not merely a curtained-off area with no light. The experience of walking from a gallery space into a full-blown movie theater is bizarre, like transitioning between two different ecosystems. Segments of Empire, Kiss, and Sleep are screened here, also in DVD transfers, on some days, but a full schedule at the back of the room indicates the days in which the complete versions of the films are shown. The idea of constructing a film theater within a museum that already has 4 theaters in other areas seems redundant: why not screen these longer works in one of the spaces downstairs? The curatorial decision here could be related to a number of practical factors: perhaps the film theaters were blocked with other series and programs. However, it seems more likely that the film theater itself is what is being showcased, like the projector and the tripod screen that opens the exhibit. One of the central curatorial premises of the exhibit, as I’ve been suggesting, is to draw our attention to these spaces and modes of display as the objects of contemplation and experience in themselves.

The decision to exhibit the Screen Tests as objects that are appropriate for a gallery space and its transitory attention, and the other works in a film theater is related, most obviously, to their length. However, this curatorial decision also brings to the forefront the different and changing roles and uses of the screen. Warhol’s exploration of the film screen as a mirror in the Screen Tests, and the exhibitionistic mode of portraiture, contrasts with his use of the movie screen as a window in the longer works, and the voyeuristic form of address in viewing a kiss, sleep, and the Empire State building.

Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures raises fascinating questions about the transition from analog to digital, the question of “film” versus “moving image,” as well as the issue of what kind of experience is engendered by diverse forms of exhibition, and the place of film within the museum context.

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