Review: Pop Life (Tate Modern)

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With my work mission accomplished on a day-trip to London, I took advantage of a couple of spare hours to view the Pop Life exhibition at the Tate Modern. The renewed Tate is an excellent contemporary art museum; can’t believe how long it’s taken me to visit it.

The exhibition pop art story starts with Andy Warhol, an artist who embraced commercialism wholeheartedly. Some say too much so, and that sentiment was emphasised in the description of his work on display here. Everyone knows his iconic prints of soup cans and famous personalities. But Warhol worked beyond that, into his Art Factory works for music, his Interview magazine publication, and his foray into television (including appearing himself on Japanese commercials and a cameo on the 1980s evening soap, Love Boat). Many fellow artists dismissed Warhol as a sell-out, but others developed this approach in their own ways, as demonstrated in the subsequent exhibition rooms.

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Kudos to the Tate Modern for replicating one of Keith Waring’s original installations — Pop Shop — his signature grafitti-style characters on the walls, rap music blasting away, with a counter to purchase t-shirts and buttons. Art for the masses.

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Another available room displayed warning notices on the closed doors — material of an adult nature. Beyond revealed the explicit work of Jeff Koons. You may not recognise him but you may his wife, Ilona Staller aka La Cicciolina, Hungarian born porn star. While the large canvasses don’t convince me much beyond porn, the white marble Bourgeois Bust showing Koons near fondling his wife’s breast, is nice sarcasm to classical marble sculpture. There’s a larger than life plastic sculpture Dirty: Jeff on Top, but that’s not so subversive. The story of the artist-performer relationship is interesting, and Koons does his best to demonstrate this artisitically.

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A product of Young British Artists is Damien Hurst. It is evident from his start that he knew what he was doing. On display is formaldehyde calf encased in 18 carat gold glass tank, with a most appropriate title — False Idol. Hirst’s gambit was to offer his work at auctions netting millions. A natural extention of Warhol, if you ask me, and perfect for this exhibition.

Pruitt Early’s display of hip hop with Black Power wasn’t received well by critics of 1990s, but why not? Commercial America welcomed consumerism of hip hop (and how; I remember hip hop’s evolution from poor urban ghetto to gangster rap and bling). Perhaps Early’s mix of mainstream with contentious icons was too unpalatable. Would it be like Warhol mass printing hammer and sickle in his day?

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Piotr Uklanski’s piece, The Nazis, was vandalised when shown in Warsaw, which I’m sure the artist relished, in that it is a large grid collage of stills from films not real Nazis. Uklanski achieves his goal of how media fiction can provoke outrage. And I do like his professional looking mock advert of the stereotypical Polish Plumber as a tourist advert. Cheeky.

Andrea Fraser’s technique is to offer her artistic body itself for sale to an anonymous collector (exploring the artist-patron boundaries). Artistic yes, but without development just a clever form of prostitution as art?

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Maurizio Cattelam is a prankster. An artist’s muse for artists. There’s surreal potential with his kneeling/praying Hitler (not displayed at this exhibition), but also a danger of just being reactionary, coming across as offensive and not provoking reflection (unlike, say, Jenny Holzer’s displays to the general public).

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The exhibition climax is Takashi Murakami, who takes Warhol’s Art Factory and supercharges it in Japan via his company Kaikai Kiki Co Ltd. It’s all here as can only be done in Japan’s hyper-pop market. An extension of Haring’s Pop Shop, Murakami had a Louis Vuitton (a Japanese commercial obsession in itself) store outlet installed inside one of his exhibitions, selling merchandise that the artist had designed for the label. Here in the Tate Modern, one of the displays is a 4-minute music video, featuring Kirsten Dunst as Akihabara Majokko Princess, singing the Vapour’s “Turning Japanese”. Accompanying this are promotional flyers: PLEASE TAKE ONE the note says. You, the ticket-paying exhibition visitor, man (or woman) of the masses, have just participated in the artist’s work. Genius.

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So, yes, I did enjoy Pop Life. It tells the story of modern pop art convincingly. With Murakami’s pop art send-off, you wonder “what next”? Some talk of post-modern art, with its post-modern theories. Myself, I think the preponderance of consumer society makes post-modernism hard to accept as a viable evolutionary next step. Instead, some nascent developments I’m observing with social networks, including some artists’ crafting of YouTube, points to the next level: Murakami going global.

About Allan Leonard

Working for a cohesive Northern Ireland society My special interest is Northern Ireland affairs, arriving from America at the time of the 1994 ceasefires. Currently serve as Director, Northern Ireland Foundation, an independent non-profit organisation based in Belfast. Previous posts include Policy Officer at the Northern Ireland Assembly, General Secretary of the Alliance Party, and Operations Manager at the Ulster Historical Foundation. Previously, I was responsible for the development and launch of the Troubled Images project at the Northern Ireland Political Collection, Linen Hall Library; this exhibit travelled worldwide. My professional background includes marketing, communications, exhibition and event management, policy development, and senior management. Received a MA degree in Irish Political Studies from University College Dublin, and a BA degree (with Distinction) in International Relations from Boston University. Views expressed here may not represent those of current or previous employers or associations.

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