BRIGHTON, UK — Full blown hostilities in Northern Ireland may seem like a distant nightmare. But could he have got here earlier, there’s just a chance Andy Warhol might have accelerated the peace process, if only by a fraction. He offers here a mantra for the small troubled country, and all those like it.
“I think everybody should like everybody.”
This quote now greets visitors to the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast, presently host to the first significant Warhol show ever to take place north of Ireland’s contentious border. In his laconic way, this major artist, who once took a bullet for no good reason himself, nails it. And one imagines UK PM Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton thinking along similar lines when they came here to walk a political tightrope in the 1990s.
The venue itself is only one year old. Greater Belfast has a population of almost 600,000, and MAC is an arts center which could grace any city of comparable size. Wander into the cafe or the theater box office and the signage will entice you to the galleries on the upper level, where there is no mistaking the international standing of the artist on display and, by association, the city in which he now finds himself.
As if this painter, filmmaker and svengali were in need of an introduction on Irish soil, visitors to this overdue show are greeted with a wall-to-wall hang of his marketing collateral. Posters for Velvet Underground shows jostle with ones he made for the Fassbinder film Querelle and another for a posthumous gig at an Italian film festival. These ads span some 20 years from the late 1960s to 1990, whetting the appetite and establishing Warhol as a famous painter of famous things.
Indeed, Warhol’s best-known quote (about the fifteen spotlit minutes we shall all one day enjoy) is echoed in murals surrounding the courtyard of the nearby Duke of York pub. Here the region’s most prominent sons and daughters are packed into a group portrait with critical mass. Poet Seamus Heaney rubs shoulders with soccer star George Best and Girls Aloud singer Nadine Coyle. Spend a quarter of an hour with every toast of the town in Belfast and you will be here a long time.
But there is more to Warhol than celebrity, and a show in a recent conflict zone is always going to draw that out. 90 works have been chosen from the touring Artist Rooms collection of Anthony d’Offay; most have a resonance here that would have been absent on the UK mainland. This artist may effect a small change in the cultural life of this city, but Belfast likewise transforms Warhol. His show here reminds visitors and onlookers that Andy the Fabulous also had his depths.
It is of course possible that the Pittsburgh artist never gave this part of the world a second thought. He wasn’t even shown in Ireland until a major 1997 show in Dublin. But the curatorial team behind his current outing have found myriad echoes of Belfast life in the artist’s output. And it is doubtful that a show by, say, contemporary pop artist Jeff Koons or the best known YBAs could have been put together with such resonance here.
By his final decade, it is well known that Warhol was tackling religion and death, themes which have gone hand in hand for many years of Ireland’s history. So now a large monochrome screen print in the upper gallery urges you to “Repent and sin no more!” And it is at this point that the gallery guide breaks cover and reveals that Warhol was, by upbringing, Catholic. This is a salient fact in a city where even the local Jewish population are classed as either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ Jews by local wits.
There’s no escaping the fact that Warhol is a very catholic artist. He is an icon maker and something of a high priest. It is only his cosmopolitan sensibility which ensures that a work like “Repent … ” and the nearby portrait of a saint, “Are You ‘Different’?” both have a light touch, implying that we are no different from one another. We all have our saints, and Warhol himself might be one.
But in the same gallery hangs a print with associations that Warhol probably would have never guessed at. His black paratrooper boots are presented as a comment on the Cold War, but those who lived through the troubles will surely associate these with the British Army’s presence on the streets here. They call to mind the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, where 13 civil rights protestors were shot dead by Paras. Jack boots are the very antithesis of the hazy glamour with which Warhol surrounded himself; what they demonstrate is that he could not insulate himself from international politics.
On the facing wall are a series of 1986 camouflage prints in which Warhol moves from shades of green to shades of pink. Along with a desire to hide, noted elsewhere, we can also read a statement of pacifism into Warhol’s suggestion of these wildly impractical battle fatigues. (By the noughties, camo paterns had found their way out of the barracks and into the high street. It seems that Warhol not only beat the curve but was also perhaps instrumental in this intriguing trend.)
A smaller work from the same year also offers a localized reading. “Cough” (1986) is a stitched photo with the focus on a handwritten sign for the passengers of a taxi cab. “Cough:” it reads, “Driver has a nice sugar free drop for you. Sneeze: Kleenex is behind you.” One can only speculate as to what buttons this pressed for New Yorker Warhol, but here it calls to mind the many black cabs outside. Those run by the West Belfast Taxi Association were once targeted by Unionist death squads. So to this day some passengers may not dare cough or sneeze.
Perhaps the best thing you can bring to a once divided city is a sense of humor. Warhol was every bit as Metropolitan as the M in his current venue, the MAC, but he was once asked why he never made any pastoral work. It’s a question which no doubt Irish artists get asked from time to time, being in one of Europe’s more rural countries. Warhol responded with his cow wallpaper, which envelopes one of the spaces here. Cow is a light touch, a complete response and a consummate gesture from left field.
His wallpaper shows Warhol at both his most pragmatic and imaginative. As Belfast completes the transition from warzone to focal point for tourism and economic growth, both qualities are just what’s required.
Andy Warhol: At the MAC continues at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (10 Exchange Street West, Belfast, Northern Ireland) through April 28.