Visions of Empire at the Hirshhorn

A new exhibition combines a seminal Warhol film with a pair of modern responses

A frame from "Empire," Warhol's 1964 film
A frame from "Empire," Warhol's 1964 film Photo courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum

In 1964, when Andy Warhol first screened his film Empire, the reaction was decidedly negative. “The first theatrical screening at Jonas Mekas’ American Cinematheque, according to Mekas, caused a near riot,” says Kelly Gordon, a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum. “People became restless, then agitated, and finally many stormed the box office for a refund.”

When you first sit down to watch Empire at the Hirshhorn’s new exhibition, “Empire3,” you might be inclined to agree with the angry crowds. Warhol’s work is a nearly static image of the Empire State Building, filmed over the course of more than six hours on a night in July of 1964. In the sense of a conventional film, absolutely nothing happens. The sun slowly sets, and some of the building’s lights flicker on and off. For the entire 46-minute excerpt shown at the Hirshhorn, that’s it.

But as you settle in, and your mind starts to play with the image. Set to the humming of the projector and the wandering of your thoughts, the picture is slowly transformed. The illuminated top of the building becomes a lighted crown, and then a candle’s flame. You close your eyes, and you see a faint ghost image of the building on the backs of your eyelids. In the darkened room, the flicker of the film brings to mind Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” And when you emerge out into the bright gallery, you’re uncertain what to think of it all: is it a serious work of art, or an elaborate joke?

For Warhol, all this is no accident. “Warhol’s early movies were experiments in which the camera is utilized to record the beauty of a found subject, like a suspended stare,” Gordon says. “He commented that this allowed viewers to get to know themselves better.”

Warhol believed that this unconventional use of film was essential in curbing the rapid pace of life for viewers in the increasingly hectic world of the 1960s.  ”It’s not for everyone, but it is a landmark use of media to slow one down from the barrage and dynamic of the media-ized world, which has grown exponentially more frantic since this was made,” says Gordon. “Even those who aren’t captivated by this often rest here longer than they do before, say, a Rothko.”

The Hirshhorn’s new exhibition pairs Empire with a pair of related works to explore the ways in which the media environment—and the expectations of viewers—have changed since the film’s creation. Outside the gallery, on a small TV monitor, Bootleg (Empire), by Douglas Gordon, is shown.

“Warhol’s work was a legend, but difficult to get to see,” Kelly Gordon explains. “When Gordon found out it was showing in Berlin, he brought a crummy hand-held video camera to tape it on the sly.” Douglas Gordon’s work, a shaky, two-hour bootleg of the original, seems to play on many of the same concepts prevalent throughout Warhol’s career. “His work brings to mind all the issues of appropriation in art—what is inspiration, versus simply theft?” Kelly Gordon asks.

The most recent work in the Gallery is Wolfgang Staehle’s Empire 24/7. Like Douglas Gordon’s film, it’s a comment on Warhol’s original, but was created through an entirely different method.  Staehle set up a digital webcam that took photos of the Empire State Building every six seconds and streamed it on the Internet for four years straight. “He has said that it responds to what has happened in the world since Warhol’s work was created,” says Kelly Gordon. “Namely, that digital means provide access to consumerism that continues 24/7.” At the Hirshhorn, a segment of the film is shown, calibrated to match the real-time hour of the day outside.

The exhibition is the very first time the works have been on display together, and Gordon hopes that the chance to see them in the same place will give visitors a new take on the original piece. ”The work is about the cumulative experience, and how long it takes to rinse your mind of other things—or if, in fact, you actually can,” she says.

Empire3 is on display at the Hirshhorn Museum through February 26, 2012

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