Hayley Heyes wonders at the neon pink Christ of Warhol’s darkened room.
This post first appeared in CRUX (Te Kupenga’s zine), August 2015.
Becoming a Christian for me was something completely unforeseen, something that sort of jumped out at me from within one of the most secular of spaces. The works of Andy Warhol, famous for their embodiment of our epoch’s embrace of immanence, were on show in Te Papa’s exhibition Warhol: Immortal. The exhibit featured works on many of Warhol’s most well-known themes; mass production, pop culture, repetition unto death, celebrity. The fun or terror (depending on one’s own relationship with transcendence) of Warhol: Immortal is that its celebration of these themes appears total. Brimming with bright pinks, yellows and the optimistic buoyancy of inflatable silver clouds, one is enjoined to run, skip, and jump into late-capitalist materialism with utter gaiety for its meaninglessness.
one could walk around this life, enjoy the material colours, pleasures, and so on, and simply exit through the gift shop, so to speak. Yet such a life would be a distracted life…
Initially, walking through Warhol: Immortal I was not particularly stirred by its rendering of a delightful nihilism. Until, that is, an alternative vision called to me from the back of the exhibition. As I went to exit this bright playhouse of the immanent (fittingly, through the gift shop) I turned back to see a small, and easily missed room within the larger exhibit, blackened. And from this blackness shone the outline of Jesus in neon pink. I was undone by the simple truth presented by the placement of this neon Jesus: one could walk around this life, enjoy the material colours, pleasures, and so on, and simply exit through the gift shop, so to speak. Yet such a life would be a distracted life, distracted from Jesus who holds the truth of our existence, patiently, quietly, waiting for us to take it up.
And therein lies the terror of Warhol: Immortal’s total celebration of the immanent; the thought that one might be wrong about its totality, that one might indeed be missing out. The task then, we as Christians take up, upon deciding for the darkened room and against the bright playhouse, is that of discerning truth from distraction. And there are many distractions, not just the obvious material obsessions of our time: sex, celebrity, entertainment and so on. Rather, the pull of immanence is also lurking in our mindless chatter, our faithfulness to clock time and the cult of work.
One may argue mine is a misreading of Warhol: Immortal, that Jesus was presented not as an alternative to materialism but merely as yet another one of its commodities. In answer to this I would note that the life of Warhol himself complicates such a position. In a sense
Warhol: Immortal is the story of Warhol the man; Warhol was openly homosexual, yet a closet Catholic. Warhol and his work may appear caught in the colour of material life, yet, look again, and perhaps you’ll find his history of sneaking into the back of darkened cathedrals for evening mass.