Review: Andy Warhol Exhibition at the Belfast MAC

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I must say I was quite surprised to learn that the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Centre, known simply as the MAC, had managed to secure such a big exhibition as an Andy Warhol retrospective. By no means one of the major arts hubs in the city, the MAC has only just reopened after an extensive refurbishment.

Unfortunately, the Andy Warhol exhibition was a disappointment. As a Belfast native myself, I went to the show hoping that the MAC would prove that Northern Ireland is perfectly capable of producing, curating and exhibiting such important shows. But with each minute longer that I spent in the gallery, I was sadly forced confront the fact that it simply wasn’t the case.

To be fair to the MAC, a Warhol exhibition was always going to be a difficult thing to pull together. The famously elusive artist left behind him a complex legacy for any curator to make sense of- a muddle of myth, lie and bizarre reality. However, that is not to say that this would not have been manageable with good curating skills.

The flaws with the exhibition are fundamentally the same three hallmarks of Warhol’s life- obsession with celebrity, inherent superficiality and commercial motives above artistic integrity.

Beginning with Warhol’s posters at the MAC

The exhibition was separated into four elements. It began with a room packed tightly with posters created by Warhol. These posters were squeezed together on the walls with little apparent order. Little guidance by way of information was provided beyond a few sentences tacked to the wall by the entrance. The posters did not merely convey the obsession with celebrity which Warhol advocated, instead it seemed to be caught up in it too. The room seemed merely to scream, ‘look we have all these famous things, by a famous guy, isn’t that great’, with no more profound reflection or direction.

In a second adjoining room, a number of hand painted miniatures by Warhol were exhibited in a glass case, a disjointed addition to the previous posters and without any additional commentary or direction to progress a visitor’s understanding or enjoyment of the artist.

The next room contained a number of genuine canvas prints placed sparingly around the room. with a bareness contrasting massively to the overly packed posters in the previous space (around ten images here in comparison to the previous eighty or so in a similarly sized room). However no explanation was given, either thematic or historical, as to why these canvasses and not any others were grouped here. Instead the visitor was left to get the impression that they were simply there as the ones that the MAC were able to get their hands on.

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‘Superstar- The Life of Andy Warhol’ The 1990 film by on show as part of the MAC’s exhibition

The final element of the exhibition was a cinema screening room, similar in idea to many large galleries such as the Tate Modern. This part was the most frustrating part of the experience, because it would have been very simple to get right with a little effort. The room, on the day of my visit, was playing a 87 minute pre made film about Warhol on a loop. The film’s length is something I’ve never heard of in a gallery. The longest I’ve ever seen was a Tate Modern video on post colonial art lasting twenty minutes. To expect anyone visiting a gallery to watch an hour and a half long film was quite a bizarre premise on the gallery’s part.

It could have been (possibly) justified if the film directly corresponded to the art works in the MAC’s exhibition but instead the film largely consisted of  more famous Warhol artwork that the MAC hadn’t been fortunate enough to get its hands on. When it wasn’t doing that, the film contained interviews with Warhol’s friends high off their faces and talking gibberish. Whilst the latter could be argued as giving a taste of the environment in which Warhol was living, after an hour and a half it was anything but illuminating.

The film could have been a final saving point had it consisted of specially commissioned footage specific to the images in the exhibition, it could have padded out with much needed information the superficial approach in the rest of the exhibition. I’m not sure if it this long, pre-made film was selected due to restrictions of money, time or knowledge on the curators’ behalf, but it was the final disappointment in a series of many.

The only thing that I can hope is that the exhibition’s quality  may have been due to the gallery having recently been closed for a very long refurbishment programme and therefore experiencing teething problems getting back into the way of producing and curating. I’ll be sure to visit the MAC’s next exhibition with an open mind and let you know how that fares.

I feel reluctant to be harsh about the exhibition upon which I am sure a lot of effort was made by the gallery and the Northern Irish Tourist Board. But I do believe that it is a fair summary. I came into the gallery really hoping to find an event which lived up to the hype and could suggest a new artistic force in Belfast. Unfortunately I didn’t find it here.

Add your comments below or click here to join the conversation on the Fawn Review facebook page! Do you think there are particular difficulties curating work by someone as mysterious as Warhol? And have you ever come across an exhibition that you just really, really didn’t like?

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