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Andy Warhol

ICA, London, UK

I walked in on Billy Name; his mirrored shades reflecting the glare from the studio lamp as wisps of smoke drifted up from an unseen cigarette. Sitting at a slight angle to the camera he posed like a movie star in a publicity shot or a model from one of those sun-bleached photographs of perfect haircuts in a barber's shop window. And then he was 'beamed up', his image fading from the screen to be replaced by a blinking Edie Sedgwick, her eyelashes heavy with mascara as if she was about to cry.

Andy Warhol's Screen Tests (1963-66) are mute portraits of his wide circle of aides, acquaintances, acolytes and hangers on. Anyone who visited the Factory was likely to be recorded without direction or influence from Warhol, who would often leave the camera running in front of the subject and walk away. Some remained as still as possible, staring fixedly into the lens. Staring back at the succession of faces you enter a state of glazed enthralment. At first, it involves a restless tedium, each film seemingly lasting forever, and then the sedative takes effect and there is nothing to it but to let yourself become immersed in the cold, silvery glow of the screen.

Calling these four-minute films Screen Tests seems to imply that they served as some kind of future reference material or a visual casting couch. As such they are totally democratic, presenting an undifferentiated parade of those who drifted though Warhol's universe, a place where everything could literally be taken at face value. Each is a clear and perfect visual record, a pure and undemanding surface, lavishly artless, non-committal and, in a sense, liberated from concept. More than anything, however, they are meditations on an objective world, beautiful and silent evidence continually dissolving in a celluloid haze.

Never seen before in the UK, Warhol's film Outer and Inner Space (1965) is a double screen projection starring Edie Sedgwick, Warhol's first 'Superstar'. Each screen projects an almost identical picture of her: she was positioned in front of a large television monitor, which displayed an image of her face in profile, head tilted back as if in an act of supplication. Although she is obviously talking, her words are an indistinct babble of lo-fi noise. The other Edie sits with her back to the TV, positioned in such a way that the video image appears to be speaking into her ear. She listens and reacts to her own, recorded voice, laughing, mimicking herself, feigning incredulity, smoking almost constantly. She looks almost too good to be true, her perfect, pathetic face animated by the exaggerated expressions of a silent movie star. Watching her image is a completely mesmerizing experience it's hard to tear your eyes from the screen for fear of missing a single moment of her poised, and at times hysterical, performance.

Outer and Inner Space presents a visual and temporal conundrum, utilizing the different qualities of, and distinctions between, film and video. The 'live' Edie reacts in real time to her recording as if she's just emerged from a period of amnesia, and was somehow not present during the taping. She responds to off-screen directions, such as sneezing in unison with the video image; occasionally the outside world intrudes and she gets distracted by the sound of an aeroplane passing overhead, or Gerard Malanga's presence in the background. Now and then the video image is made to vanish momentarily into a static flicker or scroll away up the TV screen. But all the while Sedgwick talks and talks, the occasional phrase or single word surfaces but never enough to enable you make any sense of this one-sided conversation. You give up even trying to make out what she's saying it was all lost a long time ago and now it hardly seems to matter.

Outer and Inner Space is a strange and rather joyful examination of objectification. It is also a little disturbing. Sedgwick was to die from a drug overdose only six years later, lending the work a somewhat morbid pall that we like to imagine as one of Warhol's fondnesses. Perhaps it is one of his greatest portraits; it's certainly as poignant as anything else he ever made. In the work's closing seconds it appears that his star's real-time presence counts for nothing. Someone tunes the television back to a Western movie, and Edie's image is substituted for a fleeting but significantly cruel moment by that of a blurred cowboy, who in turn vanishes into a single point of white light.

Issue 62

First published in Issue 62

October 2001
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