United Kingdom. 2020 Calendar of events – extract
March 12 – Start of Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern in London. I don’t rush to buy tickets. Make a note for later.
March 17, 2020 – Museums and galleries have been shutting their doors after the government announced stringent new measures aimed at tackling the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Wash hands.
March 18 – Princess Beatrice cancels her wedding reception at Buckingham Palace (wedding ceremony scheduled for May 29).
March 24 – To date, 422 people have died from coronavirus in the UK. Wear a mask. Wash hands.
March 26 – The National Theatre launches National Theatre at Home with free streaming each week. I wonder if you need to wear a mask. I heard this virus is sneaky, jumpy. I can easily imagine it fooling the pixels in my TV screen. It doesn’t seem right. I google “racing thoughts, uncontrollable over-thinking, feelings of dread…” Or did I google anxiety?
April – Wash hands, quarantine your packages, disinfect your packages, wash hands before watching TV. Wait, don’t watch TV. It’s not safe. For your mental health. But remember to wash hands. I google a lot of things but I don’t think to google “google classroom.” We hate home schooling. We love home schooling.
May – Beautiful spring days. I start painting flowers. I have no recollection of the outside world. I hope Princess Beatrice is not too upset.
June 24 – Following the government’s announcement, museums and galleries can reopen from July 4. I don’t rush to buy tickets to the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern. I buy tickets to Spain. At this point I need more fresh air. Museums can wait.
July 17 – Princess Beatrice’s wedding. I wish her happiness. Sincerely.
October 2 – Rumours that museums may close again. Remember the note from March. Rush to buy tickets to the Andy Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern. Secure tickets for Saturday, October 17, hoping museums remain open. They will.
November 5 – Entertainment venues such as theatres, cinema, museums, etc. must close to reduce social contact. Essential services such as food delivery, medical services, postal services remain open.
As a second lockdown was settling in for November, I found myself entangled in rhetorical questions about essentials. I never paid too much attention to the meaning of the word “essential,” which I spontaneously associated with something basic we cannot live without like food or water or oxygen. But as it started to be used more broadly and frequently during the pandemic, I wanted to understand its significance so I looked up the word in the dictionary.
“Essential,” I learned, is rooted in the Latin “esse” which means “be.” This became “essentia” and then “essence” in Old French and then in late Middle English.
It became obvious as I advanced in my research that the “essence” part of “essential” designates an intrinsic quality of our humanity’s unique blueprint. It also implied the meaning can be subjective, perceived differently by different individuals depending on circumstances and hence, debatable.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a revealing example that employs the word “essential” : “Free speech is an essential right of citizenship.” Free speech surely wasn’t considered essential a few centuries or millennia ago. I felt encouraged to dream up a world of new possibilities. What else that we take for granted today or we are not seriously considering could be or become essential?
Art accompanied humans since the cave days, tens of thousands of years ago and never ceased to exist and manifest. Did we take it for granted, the same way we do with food, water and clean air or free speech for that matter when we had access to it?
On that note, I decided to write about my experience at the Andy Warhol exhibition on October 17. In a pandemic-shrunk social and cultural year, it would be a way to prolong the effect, expand the experience from the museum room into my present moment.
I’d retrace the whole experience, look at the details, pictures, tickets, overanalyse, exaggerate, only to be able to keep it alive for as long as possible. Who knows what would happen next.
I was never a museum addict. I always thought they were just there. Set in stone. Essential in a non-essential way. But the more they were labelled as non-essential in the context of the pandemic and kept closed, the more essential they became to me.
At the same time, I am aware Warhol doesn’t need more coverage and I’m not an art critic. I’m more an enthusiast who is looking for a form of connection in someone else’s art, sometimes in the shape or the colour, perhaps the contrast or the bluntness, the boldness, the reserve, the background or the space, the touch, the light or the shadow, the frame, or all of these. I suspect it is because of my belief that all art draws consciously or unconsciously from a collective source made of everyone and everything, and each artist keeps adding a stroke of his own time and perspective to what already is.
Before the exhibition
I hate the word pandemic. It was among the top 50 most used words in the first half of 2020 according to the Global Language Monitor, an American data research company that tracks trends in worldwide use of the English language. Although it scored a modest 27th position, with the top 5 being Covid, Covid-19, coronavirus, corona and face mask, pandemic appears to have been used more than disinfectant or super spreader.
So, under the circumstances, the thought of going to a museum was exhilarating. Something taken for granted for so many years became whimsical, adventurous, but it also felt like a mirage conjured by the refraction of hope in the heaviness of the post-lockdown air.
A few months prior to the exhibition, I stumbled upon an old edition of the Andy Warhol’s Flowers, Flowers, Flowers. It’s a small book full of his drawings and paintings of flowers and his quotes. For me, it’s a guide for decoding the language of flowers, a language I secretly started learning during the first pandemic-imposed lockdown this year.
One way to describe the language of flowers is to refer to it as vibrational energy. Edward Bach, a British physician in the 1930 who studied flowers’ energy, called it “essence.” He believed flower essence can balance your emotions and bring about mental, physical and spiritual wellness. Flower essence is extracted from fresh flowers heads that are left floating in the water under the sun for several hours. The heat transfers the energy in the flowers to the water.
My own experience was a bit different and didn’t require sacrificing the flowers in order to capture their essence. If we listen to the vibrational energy of the flowers in the same way the water does, we can reproduce it in a painting or drawing, maybe in words or musical notes with a similar balancing effect to our emotions. I thought Andy Warhol’s book of flowers captured both the essence and the technique so well, I felt inspired to place my trust in its guiding content. “When you have flowers at home, you should have someone come to the house” the book quotes. I trust this message.
The book is the smallest I own, so the excitement of seeing walls full of oversized versions of its pages was out of proportion.
I had rushed to buy tickets to the earliest available entry on an almost guaranteed rainy October evening. Museums have always served as temples on rainy days. Prayer is what you see on museums’ walls if you look attentively. Joy, sadness, misery, disappointment, hope. Works of art come and go from museums while human emotions stay, preserved layer upon layer in the perfect combination of light and temperature. These past few months before the exhibition had saved so many prayers, I almost feared there wasn’t going to be enough space left on the walls.
At the exhibition
My visit to Andy Warhol’s exhibition at the Tate Modern was a complete one-way masked experience with thought-provoking and eye-captivating displays, Warhol-inspired dining at the museum’s restaurant, shopping indulgence, and the company of friends.
Exhilaration is an understatement.
Even a masked experience could not suppress it –- I felt my eyes grow bigger and bigger as if adapting to the size of the canvases, moving from one wall to another.
There were no flowers in sight during the first half of the exhibition apart from a small flower –- almost as small as my book — featured on a wall full of drawings of boys. I kept my disappointment under my mask. As a consolation, the boy with the flower looked angelic.
As I advanced, several years at a time through the artist’s life, I was pulled into the atmosphere, into the movement that was created by the repetition of images on canvases, by the silver clouds floating in the air, by moving images on screens (as the artist started dedicating his work to film-making). The sense of fluidity created by the repetition of full size Elvis Presley pictures, portraits of Marylyn Diptych, Jackie Frieze, Mick Jagger, the Skulls, was sometimes accentuated by my inner sense of time scarcity imposed by the social responsibility to move faster.
I kept following my own shadow along walls of Coca-Cola bottles, cans of Campbell’s Soup, portraits of famous people and their own coloured or black and white shadows. Their stories written next to the canvases were a combination of facts, Warhol’s interpretation of facts and the curator’s interpretation of Warhol’s interpretation. No place and time for my own interpretation. I had to keep moving to comply with social distancing rules.
So I made note of some of the curator and artist’s words that sparked a few questions in my mind that I wanted to reflect on later.
“Creating pop art was “being like a machine,” as the process was often mechanized. “Everybody should be like a machine,” as machines don’t discriminate, if we were all machines then “everybody should like everybody, whatever their gender.”
“Campbell’s Soup cans — an emerging aspirational culture, selling a dream of economic and social progress,”
“Coca-Cola is one of the most recognizable brands of the United States… the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke”,
“Before and after” –- “self-consciousness about physical appearance”
“$199 television” –- “combining abstract painting with commercial imagery”
“The Factory” –- “experimental art studio and social space, living art work, open door policy, business art”
“Silver clouds” –- “paintings that float.” “Warhol’s association with silver –- silver factory, silver painting, silver-grey wig”
“The shooting” – On June 3, writer Valerie Solana went to “the Factory” and shot Warhol. She told the police Warhol was stealing her ideas. I read she was mentally unstable.
“Flowers” — “transformation of nature into something synthetic, pop-y”
“Ladies and Gentlemen” –- “lack of representation of trans people in art”
“The Last Supper” –- “faith, death and desire, endless loss”
As I was contemplating the evocative power art has in highlighting issues such as discrimination, murder, self-consciousness about physical appearance and other human inventions, the “Flowers” happened.
They appeared naturally, at the right moment, on the right wall, in the right size (large), bringing the movement to a halt. This is where I broke the rules. Slowed down. Secured my space.
I looked at the flowers from all angles, zooming in, zooming out, smelling, touching (almost–I was that close), breathing in the colours, the shape, the aliveness. It was like an intermission before the second act which coincidentally (or not) ended with Warhol’s “Last Supper” followed by the dinner finale at the museum’s restaurant.
The experience was so intense I considered dropping the idea of writing about it. Wasn’t living in the moment all that mattered?
In hindsight, maybe I wanted to write about my museum experience so I can get to use words like joy, simplicity, flowers, art, more art and flowers, flowers, flowers. Warhol’s flowers, my flowers, everyone’s flowers in an effort to override the words of 2020 that drain the spirit.
I started painting flowers during the spring of 2020. It was a way to cope with the pandemic anxiety at first, then a way to dream and aspire to a new world and a new me.
I learned that Andy Warhol started painting his flowers after the Death and Disaster Series. The repetition of the same image was seen as an active attempt to desensitize the masses into accepting death, disasters and tragedies as part of their lives. It was the artist’s belief that “if you see a gruesome picture over and over again it really doesn’t have any effect.”
My approach to accept death and disaster had been a passive one. I’d be looking submissively at current repetitions of tragedies–climate change, politics, pandemic.
I want to believe there was something instinctive in our choice of painting flowers at a particularly grim moment. I want to believe flowers were representations of our aliveness, cheerfulness, joy and beauty that were being suppressed by those dark forces we allowed, actively or passively, to multiply. As we became desensitized to dark images by way of repetition, our joy was equally fading.
But I’ll let our flowers speak to each other, to the world, candidly, colourfully, lively in a language that has the power to reverse tragedies and disasters, a universal language worth learning.
Zooming in on the flowers
Andy Warhol’s Flowers were believed to resonate with the simple shapes, bold patters and bright colours in 1960s fashion and design. I recognize qualities such as simplicity, boldness, aliveness as the very essence of flowers. I am easily caught up in their magnetic field.
My paintings of flowers are wild and more detailed. I opened them up and studied their blueprint; I wanted to see where their joy was coming from. I dipped my nose in their fragrance and my tongue in their nectar — by a stretch of the imagination perhaps. The joy, beauty, aliveness coming from their vibrational energy was tangible, comforting and healing. Instinctively, I wanted to hold on to those feelings, perhaps multiply them, make them eternal, so I took my paintings out in the garden and photographed them along with trees and shrubs and other plants and flowers like they were models in a Kenzo fashion show. Looking back, I would have called this act a bit eccentric but I felt encouraged when I saw Andy Warhol’s picture with his Flowers painting in a field of black-eyed Susans (featured above). So I called it Art.
At the restaurant
The masked museum experience was followed by the Warhol-inspired culinary experience.
As we stepped into the restaurant’s dimly lit room I noticed a few simple wood tables and chairs, almost too simple by contrast to the opulent view over the River Thames. The restaurant’s walls were covered in images of Andy Warhol’s pink cows printed on a bright yellow background. The large windows and the water’s reflection had a multiplication effect that made the restaurant walls covered in cows look like it was Warhol’s distinctive hand creating more repetition.
The Warhol menu was simple in terms of choices, yet complex and eccentric as if trying to capture in a way the essence of a life. Kudos to the chef.
There were three choices for the first course: Andy’s Tomato Soup, Tuna Fish Disaster and Jalapeno Cornbread. Nobody in our party chose the soup though it announced a promising (and new to me) seasoning of lovage oil and malt vinegar. I chose the Tuna Fish Disaster despite the unattractive description: “Inspired by the artist’s piece of the same name when two ladies contracted botulism and died from a tainted can of tuna.” Note: the tuna on the menu was not canned and the dish was divine, which made me love Andy Warhol and the chef even more.
For the main course I ordered the charred harissa aubergine with pomegranate and labneh. It was the natural choice because I love aubergines and the description sounded more exotic than the free-range chicken burger alternative. I was not disappointed. Or maybe a little. This dish didn’t seem to have a story and I didn’t recall seeing an aubergine picture in the museum gallery. Not even a footnote to indicate this was the chef’s signature dish. So I called it a tasty outlier.
For dessert, “Bringing home the bacon ice cream” told Warhol’s story as “the son of poor immigrants driven by a strong work ethic and desire to bring home the bacon.” I went for the “Ultimate baked NY cheesecake”that proved to be pretentious and excessive, as it is usually the case for things that require words like “ultimate” attached to them. On another hand, in my defense, the ice cream was “Served with a tomato soup a la Campbell’s.”
But it wouldn’t be fair if I finished on the tomato soup note. There was much more to this culinary experience than the food tasting –- there was the chef’s art to showcase the dishes.
Repetition of perfectly cut square tuna slices on a splash of sauce looking like a Warhol canvas.
Aromas of the Factory I could smell from the neighbour’s plate –- a messy combo of smashed avocado and corn.
The sound of immigration challenges I could hear in the bacon ice cream I wished I had chosen.
On the way out
The evening ended with a souvenir I got to take home from the museum’s gift shop. It was a small framed picture of the Flowers. It made me want to finish my writing with something beautiful and poetic about art. But art is not always beautiful. Flowers are beautiful. I couldn’t find beauty in Andy’s Skulls images or in Oxidation, a series of six canvases displaying urine on metallic paint.
But the whole experience helped me make more sense of a comment about art by Emile Zola I once read: “If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”
Warhol, continued to live out loud through his art even after the assassination attempt on his life and despite the fact that his health was significantly affected (he did stop the open-door policy).
Is art essential then? According to my Warhol-inspired interpretation, art is individual freedom, drawing from a collective source. It is the need, the desire to create despite the challenges of one’s own time, it is an invitation to see beauty between disasters, listen up, slow down, but also lived out loud. So, it is essential.