We jaunted off to London the other day, for the “Pop Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. I would link to details; but, well, it closed on Sunday, so you can’t go and see it now. The subtitle was “Art In A Material World” and the concept was to review artists who have embraced commerciality over the past 40 years or so, starting with Warhol and taking things on from there. It followed two strands that Warhol pioneered: on the one hand, the commercialisation of art; on the other, the objectification of the artist. From there it moves on through, on the one hand, Keith Haring, Emin & Lucas, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami; on the other, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Andrea Fraser.
Put like that, these sound like rather disparate threads; but they’re two sides of the celebrity artist. After all, when an artist’s name becomes bigger than their work, then their life is their biggest work of all. In the show, though, they did seem rather disparate, moving on from artist to artist between rooms with no firm connections between them. It took a few day’s reflection for me to tease together the themes. Arguably, of course, this is a Good Thing: an art show that doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to be seeing but lets you work the themes out for yourself. You might, after all, always spot something the curators didn’t.
We were expecting the Big Famous Art Names like Warhol and Hirst, as advertised, and we were expecting their most reproduced and commercialised images. What we weren’t expecting was for the show to be so, well, pornographic. Particularly, the Jeff Koons room: essentially, floor-to-ceiling pornography in an almost-empty, behind-closed-doors space. Most of the visitors seemed to not even notice it was there: in a busy exhibition, it was the one room we had to ourselves. From Jeff Koons’ porn stills repackaged as art, the show moved on to Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti, and the scandal that her pornography-as-art shows caused in the 1970s. That artwork was, as far as I could tell, far, far tamer than Koons’ hardcore sex: it shows just how much society has changed in 35 years or so. And neither Koons nor C-F-T were disturbing, in the way that Andrea Turner’s prostitution-as-video-art piece was disturbing: a bare room housing a barely-styled video, showing Turner having sex with the art collector she had sold the piece to. Shot by a single fixed camera, it was cold, clinical, unemotional, the business relationship removing any passion.
That work of art was, you could argue, a culmination. As far as an artist can go in their own self-objectification.* It was followed by a room devoted to Takashi Murakami, at the extreme end of art commercialisation, two separated strands starting out from Warhol. Interesting to see how far they had diverged; and was Warhol really a clear starting point, or just a place where two trends intersected? For some artists, art can be a business; for others, it can be life. It can be martyrdom. It left me thinking, secondly, that maybe money and devotion don’t have to be that far apart.
The first thing it leaves me thinking of, though, is the genitals of Mr and Mrs Koons, blown up to wall size whilst hard at work. And the thought: “I’m glad I didn’t invite The Mother.”
* Going back to Jeff Koons, the show’s notes deliberately stressed that Koons had been objectifying his own body, and not just his wife’s; not having the porn-star physique early in his career, he had to buff his muscles up a bit.