If you looked up at the Aon building, the tallest skyscraper to the north of Millennium Park, between the 51st and 61st floors at any point from 6 PM and 2 AM last Friday, you could see a faint image of the Empire State Building perched there, flickering like a votive candle. This was Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film, Empire. Curated by Matthew Witkovsky, the Chair of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, this screening of Empire was the first time the film had been shown outdoors in the United States.
Sadly, the image wasn’t as visible and definitely not as large as I had hoped. (I envisioned one skyscraper cloaked in the image of another). Despite the less-than-awesome effect of the screening, this screening of one of Warhol’s most well-known films certainly stands out bravely amongst other more mundane curatorial projects.
This screening, which was to celebrate the opening of “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph 1964-1977,” separates itself as a different instantiation from the original work. It is, essentially, a new work. Witkovsky, probably inspired by the subject matter of “Light Years,” obviously understands this film as an homage to the image as well as an homage to an iconic building.
In Hal Foster’s latest book, The First Pop Age, he brilliantly weaves a history of five Pop artists, including Andy Warhol, to detail his proposition that Pop Art, as much as it came as a reaction to the pressures of modernity, was centrally concerned with the role of the image in contemporary culture. “Pop in general and Warhol in particular sometimes underscore the sheer difficulty of our status as homo imago, the great strain of achieving and sustaining coherent images of self and other at all. This strain speaks to a telling doubleness that often obtains in Pop paintings and personae alike, an oscillation between the iconic and its opposite—the evanescent, even the ghostly.”
This screening of Empire revealed just such a specter. As the image flickered far up on the building, one got the feeling that there was a break in reality, or as the Tribune reporter Mark Caro put it, like “someone slipped something into your drink.” This break is a product of the image that we have learned, through necessity, to accept as a normal occurrence. But this break in reality has fascinated artists and critics alike for decades: the power of the image to freeze time and take it somewhere else. The image becomes a placeholder or a reference to another time, and in certain cases, elevates what was to the level of icon, a designation outside of time.
As our culture became saturated with images, which then became a kind of cultural currency, leading to the type of celebrity culture of today which celebrates the apparent freedoms and bounds of the image as a visual manifestation of the ego (think reality television), Pop artists reacted to an environment of surfaces by appropriation and manipulation, aware that the image had become a touchstone of psychological identification. I don’t see a better way to celebrate this tradition than Witkovsky’s screening which by projecting an image of a building onto another building succeeded in bringing together two very different times and places in order to produce the specter that seduces still to this day: the image.
-Joel Kuennen, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(image: Andy Warhol, Empire, 1964)