PRINT October 2004


Rachel Harrison

EIGHT HOURS AND FIVE MINUTES IS A LONG TIME TO SPEND watching a movie. That’s how long Empire is. I made it through six hours once on my birthday. I knew Warhol didn’t really expect this of me, but I wanted to see what it was like, to treat his film like regular cinema and get lost in the movie. Looking can be meditation, internalized and Zen, and it can also be an escape that takes you away from the real world for a while. Since I had read about Warhol films before I actually saw them, I thought of them as actions, not as objects. The idea was paramount, not the product. But when I finally saw the films I realized I was wrong. They are all about looking, and about materiality. You have to experience them in real time with the sound of the projector, especially the ones with no sound. Duration is the text, the actor just a dust jacket, the hook to get you in there. In a Warhol film you see what the camera sees, nothing extraneous. But eight hours is a long time. You think of other things. You think about your life. You are in the movie.

Warhol said art should be for everyone, like entertainment. But just how “entertaining” is his work? I find it hard to believe that he expected Empire to be appreciated by a large audience. The “Screen Tests” are among his most important works, but they don’t pretend to entertain you. What were they testing anyway? Warhol abused the idea of a moving image by making it a moving still. This use—and misuse—of film was often paralleled by the radical activity in the film itself. “Misuse” implies that there are rules that an artwork should play by yet doesn’t have to. In some ways, Warhol’s isolation of the star to create a space of pure voyeurism anticipated today’s biggest form of entertainment: reality TV.

I have referenced Warhol in a lot of my work, with the inclusion of cans, boxes, and products, as well as celebrity images (Bo Derek, Johnny Carson, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe). A photograph of a celebrity is a thing, not a picture. It’s a mundane cultural artifact. You can rip it out of a magazine and hang it on your wall. When you look at a picture of Michael Jackson, you’re looking at a picture that has been reproduced a million times; in a sense you are seeing all those pictures at the same time. You are also looking at what isn’t there, and what you are denied from knowing about him as a real person. Warhol was fascinated with famous people, but I’m not very interested in celebrity. I’m interested in photographs of celebrities. In choosing a picture of a celebrity, I have often tried to select an image that is more casual than glamorous. I wonder if in the future they’ll still be recognized as famous; maybe they’ll just look like ordinary people.

I love what Warhol said about his Rorschach paintings—that he wanted to get other people to talk about them because it would be more interesting than what he had to say. The Rorschachs are related to my photo series of a window in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where the Virgin Mary was said to appear. I was thinking about the idea of projection and blankness, of seeing what you want to see. A colorful splotch was translated into a legible iconic form because someone believed that it could be. Something abstract and immaterial became a representation through a communal leap of faith, and it made the front page of the New York Times. I wouldn’t have been interested if the apparition had appeared in the bark of a tree or a plate of spaghetti, as in former sightings, but here the miracle was specific to the medium of photography. The image appeared on the transparent glass of a window, and believers wanted to see the miracle and then go inside the house and touch it. The accumulation of fingerprints was the result of seeing.

What’s inherent in both photography and sculpture is space, but you experience it so differently in each medium. One is actual; one is in your head. In my work I wanted to expand on that by including actual objects that exist in a space other than one defined by art. Maybe isolating one thing from the world can be like floating off into space, just for a moment. Maybe it highlights what isn’t there, or suggests what could be substituted in its place. In the work and in the world. When Warhol was asked about the monochrome panel that hung alongside the silk- screened canvas in his early diptychs, he referred to them as “the blanks.” What were “the blanks” doing there? There are a lot of blanks in my work.

Warhol’s legacy for an art world much larger and more out of control than the one he left behind has had an effect that’s cynical and depressing and hard for me not to hate: He helped create the whole star-based, spectacle-drenched art world we have today. There is humor and pain in naming your studio “The Factory.” Warhol toyed with sincerity in the presentation of his self, but his work is very real. What I love most about him is how his work is so intensely personal and full of raw emotion. It’s genuine because it came honestly from who he was and the things he loved—even when he painted money. He did it over and over and over again.

At some point in the ’80s I thought you weren’t supposed to look at Warhols, you were meant to list them: Last Supper, electric chair, Coca-Cola, Mao, race riots, Marilyn, Brillo boxes, suicides, soup cans, Marilyn, shadows, shoes, car crashes, Marilyn, Jackie, tuna-fish disaster, dollar bills, Marilyn, Elvis, Marilyn. I thought he was saying, I don’t understand why we make so much art; there is already so much of it to look at. What I get from Pop is the importance of recycling. Maybe it’s more Duchamp than Warhol, but it's hard to think of one without the other.

As told to Bob Nickas

Rachel Harrison, an artist based in New York, will participate in the 54th Carnegie International in October. She will also have a solo show in the “New Work” series at SF MoMA in November.

Bob Nickas is curatorial adviser at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.