Terry Grimley on films by Andy Warhol and other post-industrial attractions in Eastside.
When Andy Warhol started making films in the 1960s, even many of his admirers regarded them as a bit of a joke.
Films like Empire (1964), in which a camera stares unblinkingly at the Empire State Building for just over eight hours, were easily dismissed as just another leg-pull as the world’s most fun-loving decade pushed relentlessly at the boundaries.
Other films with deadpan, self-descriptive titles like Sleep and Eat continued the aesthetic of real-time, unedited cinema shot in grainy black-and-white. The remarkable thing, coming back to these films in excerpts on loan from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh at Ikon Eastside, is how much material later artists have found in them.
For instance, it is impossible to imagine Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (the Alfred Hitchcock classic slowed down to run at scarcely perceptible speed) without the example of Empire.
You might also see Warhol’s Blow Job as a direct ancestor of Martin Creed’s Sex video now playing at Ikon’s main gallery, though the 1960s avant-garde was more inhibited – Warhol’s film focuses exclusively on the recipient’s face.
But the films look backwards as well as forwards. The collection of Screen Tests, shown on monitors placed on the floor, recall the close-ups in Eisenstein’s films. The subjects of these almost static portraits include such notables as Lou Reed, Marcel Duchamp and John Cale, while devotees of the minutiae of 1960s New York culture will note that the man in Kiss is Ed Sanders, poet and lead singer of underground band The Fugs.
Presented in the simple post-industrial space of Ikon Eastside, these films powerfully evoke the pioneering atmosphere of Warhol’s headquarters, The Silver Factory, 40 years ago.
We glimpse the Factory in an excerpt from a BBC documentary in which cultural critic Susan Sontag visits Warhol and poses for a screen test, placed at the entrance to the exhibition. There were probably industrial lifts just like that one all over Digbeth.
I certainly wouldn’t want to watch Empire for the full eight hours – in any case these are just excerpts – but on dipping into it it’s difficult not to be impressed by how iconic it seems, both as a building and an image. Close-to, it looks like a giant, broadly-painted canvas in which the brushstrokes are squirming like bacteria seen through a microscope.
Forty years after Warhol’s New York, Digbeth’s transformation into a post-industrial creative quarter is gathering pace. With Vivid established a few yards along Fazeley Street from Ikon Eastside, Eastside Projects has now opened around the corner in Heath Mill Lane.
Not so much a conventional exhibition space as the location for an ongoing art party where exhibits come and go at varying speeds, its opening nine-week event This is the Gallery and the Gallery is Many Things incorporates text pieces by Liam Gillick and Lawrence Weiner, a floor painting by Peter Fend, projections by Laureana Toledo and Spartacus Chetwynd and an electronic sound installation, still under development, by ISAN. I’m reserving judgement on how this space is going to contribute to the renaissance of Digbeth. Meanwhile it’s worth a look-in if you’re passing, but don’t expect to be entertained for hours.
Meanwhile, until Friday The Shambala Art Exhibition – The Final Show! is being hosted at yet another former industrial space in nearby Floodgate Street.
This collection of mainly large-scale, graffiti-style street art was mostly painted during this summer’s Shambala Festival in Northamptonshire by artists including Cyclops, Dicy, Dora, Faith 47, Feek, Fluid, Glenn Anderson, Juice 126, Junc, LL Brainwashed, Lucy McLauchlan, Mac 1, Marq Tu, Matt Watkins, Milk, Mr Jago, Outcrowd Collective, Plimsoul, Sickboy, Sweet Toof, Yaka & Zoot.
It is being auctioned in aid of the Banunule School For Orphans in Uganda and the Malawi Education Project, and is already carrying bids running into several thousands of pounds from the festival and a previous showing in London. You can see it, and put in a bid, up to Friday afternoon.
* The Eternal Now: Warhol and Film ‘63-’68 at Ikon Eastside, Fazeley Street. Until Sun (Thu-Sun 1pm-5pm). This is the Gallery and the Gallery is Many Things at Eastside Projects, 86 Heath Mill Lane. Until Nov 22 (Thu-Sat noon-5pm)The Shambala Art Exhibition – Birmingham at Wild Jibbering Warehouse, 102-104 Floodgate Street. Until Friday (daily 10.30am - 6.30pm)