Last week Mpdclick headed to London’s Tate Modern gallery to view first hand the controversial Pop Life: Art in a Material World exhibition. Featuring a colourful and rather titillating array of infamous work by Andy Warhol and successors Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Murakami Takeshi and Tracy Emin, the exhibition has caused quite a stir, being described by the Guardian Newspaper as ‘cultural prostitution in action’. This adds fuel to the long held debate as to whether Pop art is significant as an art movement in its own right, or merely a cultural phenomenon born out of the advertising and entertainment industries. Through a variety of mediums, Pop Life’s artists rebel against traditional ideas that art should be elevated from the mainstream, out of reach to the masses and to be admired from afar. Alternatively they choose a more direct approach to reach their audience; through mainstream and popular culture.
Andy Warhol, the iconic pioneer of the Pop art genre, dominates the exhibition with his signature ‘business art’. A collection of his later works, including the controversial series Retrospectives or Reversals, combines celebrity portraits and commodity prints which link entertainment and art together in a highly commercial format. Warhol famously capitalised on his artistic fame by lending his face to numerous advertisement campaigns, happy to participate in mainstream culture. Reflecting his versatile approach to art, his work is exhibited in mixed media with video footage of his numerous television appearances such as a Japanese TDK videotape advertisement and an episode of ‘The Love Boat’, as well as various newspaper articles detailing his personal life emphasising his very public persona.
This section of the exhibition clearly illustrates Warhol’s revolutionary way of branding himself and using self portraiture as self promotion. Despite being one of America’s most celebrated contemporary artists, his flirtation with the media and subsequent involvement with numerous advertising campaigns was criticised as ‘selling out’; trading his artist status for a more celebrity identity. Whether this is the case or not, this notion of ‘selling out’ was an important touchstone for a generation of artists that have emerged in the last few decades.
Other graduates from the school of Pop art on display are Takashi Murakami and Keith Haring. Work displayed by Murakami includes a massive fibreglass statue of a lactating female animation character as well as a J-pop music video featuring American actress Kirsten Dunst dressed as a Harajuku girl. Murakami is often said to be Japan’s answer to Pop art. With his empire of animated commodities ranging from fashion and fine art to music videos and print design work for Louis Vuitton, Comme des Garcons and Prada, Murakami’s extensive merchandise demonstrates just how multifaceted and lucrative his signature style can be.
In another room is a re-construction of Keith Haring’s New York based Pop Shop selling his ‘down town art’ (for example, the iconic Radiant Child and hit & run illustrations) in a variety of affordable products such as key rings, badges and t-shirts; effortlessly crossing the line between art and commerce. It seems that Haring is creating merchandise based on his art in order to demonstrate his desire to make his work more accessible to the public and in turn, rebel against the elitist nature of traditional art.
Jeff Koon’s stainless steal rabbit also features, accompanied by televised footage of Macy’s department store’s Thanksgiving Parade. The video shows a giant silver balloon version of the rabbit floating through the streets of
However seedy and provocative the material, the element of shock is evidently crucial to Pop art, and this exhibition certainly had it in bulk. With Maurizio Cattelan’s impaled horse, Damien Hirst’s False Idol (a calf with 18 carat gold hooves), Piotr Uklanski’s Nazi-inspired portrait collage and various hardcore pornographic images, all the collections were certainly eye catching. After all, it is the shock factor that propagates interest which is central to the success of the advertising industry. In this way Pop Life marks a continuing fascination with collaboration, commerce, media and art. Through the use of advertising, televised art and merchandise these artists are accessing the public directly- expressing a certain attitude about making art in a more public way and dealing with art in the real world.