Art Feature: I Shot Andy Warhol
“that’s Beijing” magazine talks to Warhol’s personal photographer Christopher Makos
by Venus Lau
The year was 1982 and China was still untouched by “postmodernism”- that smearing of the line between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” art. It was also the year that Andy Warhol, the pop-art legend who paid homage to consumerism through iconophilia such as the Gold Marilyn Monroe and the Campbell’s soup cans, visited China.
Warhol was not alone on his journey. With him came his collaborator and personal photographer Christopher Makos, who returns to Beijing this May to exhibit the photos he took during this famous visit.
We spoke to Makos about the trip he made 26 years ago to a city almost unrecognizable compared to what it is today. Recollecting his memories of a China where Hongqi (Red Flag) cars rolled up dusty streets and students’ feet strolled in white canvas sneakers rather than in Nike Airs, Makos described driving in from the airport in terms of “seeing all the bicycles”- a far cry from the congested traffic we’re used to on the Airport Expressway.
And if Warhol were still alive today, where would they visit? Makos’s reply was simple enough: “[Go back to] all the places that we visited together, then see all the new architecture and visit with all the new cool Chinese artists.”
By “cool Chinese artists,” Makos is referring to luminaries such as “Ai Weiwei, Feng Zhengjie, the artist that does the photos of himself with all the flies on his face [Zhang Huan].”
But if Warhol were alive today, he’d doubtless be intrigued by the consumerism and materialism which have crept into the pantheon of Chinese contemporary art: the shocking prices, the Shenzhen Dafen painting village that exports more than a million replicas worldwide, the repetition in producing visual icons on canvas (for instance, Yue Minjun’s laughing men). All these phenomena are on track with Warhol’s apothegm on commercial art: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
All this is intensified by employing mass production methods, including silkscreen prints – not only does the duplication of the same image not eradicate the aura of art, but it brought Warhol to the altar of contemporary art. Whether people love him or hate him, they simply can’t avoid him.
As a close collaborator with the silver-maned artist, Makos points out the linkage between the two different commercialisms behind China’s contemporary art and Warhol’s: “They are the same. The two have finally met face to face. Andy was mass market, just [as] the culture when he visited was mass market. But at that time, it was mass in a political sense; now it is mass in a consumer sense.”
Makos’ mentor was Man Ray, a photographer/painter who straddled Dadaism and surrealism. Yet Makos’ work does not resemble Ray’s experimentation with rayographs and fathoms of superimposition, nor is his photography influenced by Warhol’s nearly impressionist snapshots. In fact, he is quite the opposite.
“I was the teacher, Andy was the student. Also, Andy always would appropriate photos from newspapers…magazines, and when we met he was much more interested in learning how to take pictures for himself.”
Andy Warhol in China will be shown from May 24 to Sep 7 at Timezone 8. The book by Christopher Makos, with an introduction by Ai Weiwei, is available at Timezone 8.
Art Feature: I Shot Andy Warhol