SEE YOU AT REGIS DEBRAY a film by CS Leigh, 2005-2008, 35mm film, 1 hour 34 minutes. Courtesy of Museumfilm London.
Last year saw two touring exhibitions of Warhol's films, as well as a host of shows on other themes, most recently Andy Warhol: Pop Politics, at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. If this testifies to a continuing fascination with Warhol, it also balances the threat of Warhol fatigue against the challenge of finding themes, contexts and connections that make a new exhibition worthwhile.
Warhol's film work is one of the areas where these connections remain least explored, with many films only recently back in circulation after the restorative and archival work of Callie Angel and the Warhol foundation. Which is, perhaps, a rather odd way to introduce Warhol and the Shared Subject, a show curated by Gavin Morrison, at Forth Worth Contemporary Arts in Texas (Dec 20 2008- Feb 1 2009), not least because the show is built around Warhol's polaroid portraiture rather than his film work.
Then again, it is precisely these translations and interconnections the show would seem to want to explore by also including media-diverse work by Rineke Dijikstra, Douglas Gordon, CS Leigh, and Tony Scherman. With Leigh and Gordon most known for their moving image work, the show seemed a good opportunity to reflect on Warhol as a whole, film in particular, and various other Warhol-topics, including Warhol dialect, the Warhol aftertaste, and any Warhol obsession's precise balance of then and now, him and us.
The following conversation between David Berridge and CS Leigh took place via e-mail in Dec-Jan 2008-9.
DAVID BERRIDGE: What is "the shared subject" and how does it relate to your piece?
C.S.LEIGH: In the first instance I would defer to Gavin Morrison, the curator, to define the concept of "the shared subject" as he sees it as the theme of the exhibition. To me it represents a subject whose identity is shared through art, media, or culture and who the general public assume they know or perhaps even believe they know intimately.
Of course Warhol used this strategy in his work as did many other artists who came before and after him though I think it's fair to say he defined the strategy. I also think the way a poet like Frank O'Hara referenced cultural figures like Billie Holliday and other cultural heroes in the iconography of his work is part of that though he was less cynical.
It seems to me "the shared subject" is something that has become pervasive in our culture. Everyone thinks they know what everyone else is doing these days 24/7. How very awful.
DB: What is your piece?
CS: My piece is an installation in a self contained room using elements from my film SEE YOU AT REGIS DEBRAY which is about Andreas Baader. It consists of a wall text, a sound recording made from airport voice overs, a film loop, and an overexposed Polaroid, among several other objects. One of the reasons I was excited about being in the exhibition is because the curator asked for a work related to DEBRAY and not something from any of my projects directly connected to Andy Warhol.
C.S.Leigh, Warhol and the Shared Subject, Fort Worth Contemporary Arts (Dec 20 2008- Feb 1 2009), installation shot.
DB: What is the relevance of Debray and Baader? Why do you think Morrison want to include them in this exhibition?
CS: I would say Baader Meinhof used a strategy not very different to Warhol's in the way they put their image out there in the world. They were rock stars and if you look at recent mainstream films about Baader Meinhof you can feel that they also defined the culture around them.
Also their image lives on beyond the actual crimes they committed or their politics which have largely gone out of the conversation about them. But they also have been become part of a cultural iconography much in the way that Warhol's subjects did. You have songs about them by, among others, Marianne Faithfull and Nico for example. Fashion designers including my friend Joseph Thimister referenced Baader Mienhof in his Balenciaga collections and they've made a marked impact beyond the news.
DB: How do you see the relationships between the different elements of your installation?
CS: In the same way that there is a relationship between the actors in my films. It is not about each individual work it is about how they come together as a whole. Each defines the meaning of the others by reshaping the context and by providing either an opposite, a mirror, or a counterpoint.
DB: What projects have you done that are directly connected to Warhol?
CS: This would take a very long time to answer properly as the projects go back around five years now. Most recently I have concentrated on two Warhol related projects. I have been doing a series of performances titled GLOVES OF ONDINE which in some way references LOVES OF ONDINE which is a film I adore though I acknowledge its flaws. Also in December I completed shooting my film NOBODY FUCKS NICO about Nico though it takes place well after her days in the Warhol circle. In some way I have sought to put emotion back in to Warhol though I've been subtle about it.
DB: How is Warhol our contemporary? How, practically and/or impractically, does his legacy work?
CS: Warhol will probably always be our "contemporary" because what he did either reflected a moment so perfectly or foreshadowed it. Warhol is an inanimate object as well as an artist named Andy Warhol. His legacy is everywhere and I don't mean because idiots on cheap TV shows make "fifteen minutes" jokes or because of those tacky towels with soup cans all over them. Every stupid moment where "serious" media discuss celebrity trivia comes somehow from him and all of this art we get now which is mostly about people showing their penis to the world or talking about their sexual lives is Warhol aftertaste.
Andy Warhol, Untitled (Halston), 1974 and Untitled (Halston), 1974. Two framed Polacolor Type 108 photographs. 11"x12 3/4". Collection of Texas Christian University, a gift from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
DB: Are exhibitions like this working through a set of issues and concerns that will lead us beyond Warhol? Will there be a point when we leave him behind?
CS: What I like about this show is that it uses the Polaroids that Warhol used to make his portraits as a basis for the show's backdrop if you will. This body of work has not been looked at seriously enough for the most part though I think we can agree it is not Warhol's finest moment. That's fine though as he used the Polaroids to make those portraits which were terrible as well.
I know it sounds strange for me to say this because I have been working on several Warhol related projects but I feel I have left him behind which is not to say that I don't have great respect for his work. I've learned so much that is personal about him through friends and lovers of his over the years that it's changed my perception of him to some degree. I'm not a Warhol fan but I love his work. I think the culture industries will remain in his thrall for many decades to come. It's become the essential dialect.
DB: Do the different contributers to the show offer some shared vision or response to Warhol or are you all offering contradictory responses? Is your own response coherent or contradictory?
CS: Again this is something Gavin Morrison would have to address and I can not speak for the other artists. In the works of Douglas Gordon and Tony Scherman there seems to be a direct relationship whereas in the pieces by Rieneke Djkstra and myself the response is more abstract. One doesn't want to become a guest on a tribute album and I avoid that.
DB: Are some mediums more appropriate than others for responding to Warhol?
CS: No. I think material is material. It is the intention of the artist that matters most.
DB: What would Warhol think of such a statement? What do you mean by intention?
CS: The second best piece of advice I ever got from my shrink was not to try to figure out what other people are thinking because you never can. Still I think that phrase comes right out of Warhol. No matter what material he was using he was still making a Warhol and that was the case when the actual objects were made by others for him and in his name. He still owns them.
Intention is what the artist wants the piece to be about. I've always been a sucker for the artist pointing to a pile of bricks and saying "this is about my mother," because in the end it is what the artist is trying to do that creates the intensity of the work. That being said the work needs to claim its space or position on the virtue of its own form. One informs the other if it goes well.
DB: Successive generations of British film makers in the 70's and 80's (as A.L.Rees observed) took Warhol as an inspiration firstly for structuralist concerns and then for his camp theatricality. I don't think there is the same distinction now between these categories, but I struggle to articulate what we have instead, or how the combination works. Any thoughts?
CS: I'm not wild about the camp element. What people tend to forget about Warhol is that he was actually a very good artist and filmmaker. Granted his subjects were amazing but look at all the other mediocre work from that period featuring the same people. Usually they are duds. Likewise these days every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they can make a masterpiece just by pointing the camera at a pretty boy or beautiful woman, most often naked.
What they leave out is the structure, the rigour, the intensity of Warhol. I would say a filmmaker like Atom Egoyan comes closer to Warhol than most of the ones we think do. In terms of the UK I would say Derek Jarman got it right. He came out of Warhol and there was a camp element but he used it to go beyond.
DB: How present is Warhol in Shared Subject? I mean, could you remove him from the title and still have a coherent group of pieces. Could your own piece have a life without him?
CS: His work is the main focus of the show through those Polaroids. I think what Gavin Morrison wanted to do was to use the Warhol works to lay a foundation but then he didn't choose the usual suspects. I am assuming he was going for something autonomous. My piece could certainly exist without any Warhol relationship though in another setting it will be different.
DB: Would that lead to different aspects of the work being emphasised or omitted? Would ideas of shared-subject and assumed-intimacy emerge from a consideration of Baader and Debray on their own, or would there be a different set of issues at work? Doesn't a Warhol-frame overly impose on these other realities?
C.S.Leigh, Warhol and the Shared Subject, installation shot.
CS: I think my piece really has autonomy. Physically it is in a room on its own and that room has its own physical reality.
DB: Ideas about Warhol's films have been transformed in the last few years with numerous retrospectives and exhibitions. In the Other Voices, Other Rooms catalogue Mike Kelley has a highly personal take on why Warhol withdraw the films from circulation. Has your own work given you an intuitive sense of why he did this - and how do you think we should take account of this action in our own responses to Warhol?
CS: I like what Mike Kelley wrote in that essay but I don't agree with it. I would be very cautious about trying to draw any parallels from my own feelings or experiences. I certainly enjoy keeping my work difficult to access. That to me in these image promiscuous times we live in is a noble thing.
Making films is so difficult but in some ways so should watching them be. An actor I worked with once said resistance is the best thing we can offer and I agree.
DB: So Warhol now has this double presence of "reflect[ing] a moment so perfectly," as you say above, and yet also being its resistance and its alternative.
CS: I think that might be reading a little too much in to Warhol which is of course always a danger for those of us who study him.
DB: As Warhol's films acquire cultural shape the other big shift is from the cinema experience - as in BFI Southbank's Total Warhol season - to the gallery installation in which multiple films are projected at the same time. Do you think such a shift is significant? Do you asign different values to these different viewing situations?
CS: I'm not sure if it is significant or not. Part of the problem with so much information out there is that it dulls the presence of the work. I like what the BFI season was trying to do but I didn't much care for the emphasis it gave to work that is already overexposed.
Multiple films being projected at the same time can be interesting but I am more concerned with the recent trend toward confusing video or TV for cinema or film. At Palais Tokyo last year there was a room of TVs showing Warhol screen tests on the floor of one of the galleries. What interested me about it is that the monitors were all set to different standards of black and white and the look of the screen tests was dissipated and depressed and different.
A better job was done with the screen tests at the Kunst Werk in Berlin three or four years ago where the flat screen TVs actually managed to convey the true bleak black and white quality of the screen tests. But none of these shows the work to its best advantage because you can not fake the experience of projecting a film.