Do we have unrealistic expectations of the objects we surround ourselves with, asks Alex Da Corte in a new exhibition that showcases objects from the archives at The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. 50 Wigs, as the exhibition at HEART is called, offers a glittering promise that the relics left behind by Warhol can give us access to the man behind the icon. But is this a fair burden to lay upon fifty wigs from the last century? The answer is no – and yet …
The collection at HEART Herning Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on 1960s avant-garde art, with Piero Manzoni’s can of the artist’s own shit as a pivotal piece. Such emphasis on the avant-garde’s merging of life and art is a recurring feature of many of the special exhibitions presented at the museum, so we are getting a genuine dose of HEART Classic as American superstar Alex Da Corte presents objects owned by 1960s icon Andy Warhol in four large-scale installations in 50 Wigs.
Having had unrestricted access to the archives of the Pittsburgh museum, Alex Da Corte has chosen 91 of Warhol’s personal belongings for the exhibition, presenting them in four large total installations. This means that this autonomous exhibition offers special perspectives on the Warhol exhibition presented at the museum around the same time, with particular emphasis on the existentialist aspects of the Pop icon’s production. As a nod to Warhol’s iconic Brillo boxes, Da Corte has supplemented the artist’s own objects with present-day samples from consumer culture: cheap, trashy, fluorescent plastic junk from the bottom shelves of a one-dollar shop, all peppered by kitschy flea-market finds and even a few Beuys works from the museum’s own collection.
Just like Warhol used to be, Alex Da Corte is interested in our relationship with the objects we choose to surround ourselves with. The first room in the exhibition has a mirrored floor and silver-coloured walls, and here Da Corte has arranged the fifty wigs that give the exhibition its name. They flop around the place, some on mannequin heads made out of white polystyrene, others resting directly on the bottom of the acrylic glass case, looking like dead birds. There is a distinctive tension between the futuristic smoothness of the room, which looks like something the curators’ collective DIS might have come up with, and the amputated vulnerability of the wigs. Lying there, torn away from all the glitter and glam of which Warhol is often seen as an exponent, they resemble a collection of strangely tactile relics from a different age.
The four installations elegantly address different aspects of Andy Warhol the man by means of veiled hints, moods and little nods rather than grand biographical narratives. Wallpaper showing blue summer skies forms the background of a nightclub scene where a half-unwrapped mirror ball enters into conversation with an inflatable birthday cake from Warhol’s archives. An oversized four-poster bed presented in lewd boudoir-like lighting acts as a podium for an arrangement of hats with veils and other intimate possessions. This is full-blown surrealism and campy material poetry, yes, but it is also infused by a quite extraordinary attunement to what might be termed the inner conflict of objects. One senses that these objects are part of a wider history, that they are always pointing towards something that resides outside the object itself, but which we cannot fully penetrate. In this way the objects are smoothly impenetrable while also acting as signs that prompt an automatic series of associations in the spectator.
In Da Corte, things are not simply mass-produced articles of consumption. They are also exponents of a dream and a fantasy that they cannot make real after all. Regardless of whether we stand before Warhol’s iconic wigs or a bottle of shampoo promising us fragrant spring meadows in South Tirol, we have certain expectations about what the object can offer us beyond its rational function. Warhol’s wigs were not only meant to hide his increasing baldness, they were also part of a constant shift in identities. In 50 Wigs they promise us greater understanding of the man beneath the hair, but of course he is as far out of reach as the shampoo’s dream world of unspoilt green meadows. For the wig and shampoo bottle are also just that: the discarded possession of an old man and a 99-cent plastic container with a lingering chemical fragrance. They are objects that disappoint because they cannot in fact give us what we think we want.
Alex Da Corte’s accumulations of objects testify to a predilection for material excess that appears ironically disdainful and sincere in equal measure. One wall of the exhibition has shelves overflowing with objects which appear to have been arranged in keeping with a logic all their own. With such accumulations of objects – works by Beuys found in HEART’s own collections, Warhol relics and scented Wunderbaum car fresheners from the local petrol station – Da Corte creates a kind of forced visual poetry. These are small scenes for films that are never played out, a theatre of objects that displace and accentuate each other’s formal features, but which also constantly play more roles than the purely functional.
This is where Da Corte excels: in his keen eye for form, for combining colour, and in his ability to extract an effortlessly nonchalant poetry out of the most banal of objects, bringing them together to form dreamlike, hyper-real universes. The sheer quantity of potential symbols alone is alluring, nudging us to decode them, solve the puzzle and discover the man behind the icon. But surely this is part of Alex Da Corte’s master plan: that the objects we surround ourselves with glitter with potential, dreams and promises, and that they will invariably disappoint us.