Andy Warhol at The MAC

A major retrospective of the iconic pop artist's work comes to Belfast from February 8 to April 28. 'If he were here today, he'd definitely be tweeting!'

Andy Warhol. Even nowadays, a quarter of a century after his death in New York City, the name can cause heated differences of opinion. Are Brillo soap pad boxes art? A roomful of floating silver balloons that look like pillows. Is that culture?

Belfast audiences will shortly be able to make their minds up for themselves, when the first major Warhol exhibition in Northern Ireland opens at The MAC on February 8, running to April 28.

For Gillian Mitchell, director of programmes at The MAC, Warhol, a restless investigator in a wide variety of media and genres, fits perfectly in a venue that prides itself on being multi-disciplinary, and caters to a range of different cultural constituencies.

‘One of the big things that we’re excited about with Warhol,’ explains Mitchell, ‘is that it really allows us to show off what The MAC can do holistically, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to do that yet.’

MAC curator Hugh Mulholland agrees. ‘Warhol is one of the very few artists who would allow us to cross over in so many different fields,’ he comments. ‘The relationship between the live events and the actual physical works of art is really beneficial.’

The ‘live events’ Mulholland mentions are particularly imaginative, and aim to re-create the buzz and ethos surrounding Warhol’s protean range of activities. These included managing the seminal American psychedelic rock group The Velvet Underground, presiding over countless film and theatre productions, and throwing lavish parties at the infamous Factory, his Manhattan studio.

‘I’m having great fun at the moment putting together a Spotify playlist on every musician you can connect with Warhol,’ smiles Mitchell. Her selection of tracks, featuring Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Smiths and Elvis Presley (among others), will stream as a sonic complement to The MAC exhibition.

A Studio 54 night is scheduled for March 2, enabling local revellers to sample the atmosphere of what’s been called ‘the most famous nightclub of all time', where Warhol was a regular. Nicky Spano, the club’s original resident DJ, will spin the records on the evening.

Also programmed is 13 Most Beautiful on February 16, a multimedia presentation where Dean and Britta’s live music will accompany projections of Warhol’s famous ‘screen tests’ (four-minute films of individuals who frequented The Factory).

On the theatrical front, Gob Squad brings its highly acclaimed reconstruction of Warhol’s film, Kitchen – ‘one of the most impossible, beautiful, courageous and epic theatrical experiences you can imagine,’ enthused The Guardian – to Downstairs At The MAC for two performances on March 28 - 29.

The scale of the exhibition itself is considerable. ‘There’s a total of 90 works,’ says Hugh Mulholland, ‘including a comprehensive selection of poster works from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, significant large scale works on canvas, ‘Cow’ and ‘Chairman Mao’ wallpaper installations, the ‘Silver Clouds’ helium balloon installation, as well as a documentary, and Warhol films such as Empire, Sleep, Eat and Beauty No.2.’

Pulling such a mass of material together would normally require several years of careful forward planning and preparation. The MAC team, it transpires, have done it rather more quickly than that (‘Five months!' laughs Mitchell), thanks to a partnership with London’s prestigious Tate Gallery, and its Artist Rooms scheme for the sharing of major artworks.

‘It’s a big, big coup for us to be working with the Tate to bring this work across to Belfast,’ says Mulholland. ‘It’s a measure of how quickly The MAC has been able to position itself as a credible venue, that the Tate are so happy to cement our position on the cultural landscape here [in the UK].’

Among the works to be exhibited, Mulholland singles out one in particular as a personal favourite. ‘We have the most amazing self-portrait, 'Strangulation',’ he says. ‘It’s unique, a ten-panel piece, and it’ll sit in the Tall Gallery. We had to negotiate with a private lender to have that work here, it’s not often seen. So that’s significant.’

Mulholland also points to the steep learning curve involved in accommodating the exacting demands of lenders contributing highly valuable, often fragile works of art for the exhibit. ‘It’s a test to us of how easily we can accommodate the demands of a major lending institution like the Tate,’ he comments.

How the work is displayed, transport, insurance, security, gallery humidity – all these factors, and others, are subjected to the closest scrutiny. Mitchell is proud that The MAC is playing its part in training local workers to meet these stringent professional standards.

‘We’ve had to skill up the sector,’ she says. ‘Our freelance gallery installation crew, but also our own technical team. Because there hasn’t been anything of this size and nature in Northern Ireland previously. We’ve had to train everybody up very, very quickly, in a very short space of time.’

Will all the logistical effort have been worth it? Does Northern Ireland need an Andy Warhol exhibition? Does his work, often criticised as superficial and modish, still have something relevant to say to 21st century audiences?

Mulholland has no hesitation replying in the affirmative. ‘Warhol is significant because he did cross over such a lot of areas,’ he argues. ‘He saw art in everything, and I think that the one way of opening art up to an audience that might be sceptical is to say, listen, artists just look at things differently.

‘And we all have the capacity to look at things differently, but we’re becoming passive observers of things. We scan things. Or we sit and the TV just washes over us. Warhol taught us to question that. I think he’s a great artist.’

For Mitchell it is precisely the inclusive nature of Warhol’s artistic vision – his ability to see beauty and interest in everyday, apparently unexceptional people and objects – that makes him special.

‘For me the resounding thing is his influence on popular culture. The fact that Top Shop, one of the leading high street brands, has a recent collection called ‘Factory Girl’, a direct reference to the Warhol influence... And you had make-up giant NARS launching its Iconic Andy Warhol Collection before Christmas.’

And, like others before her, Mitchell views Warhol’s famous dictum ‘In the future everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes’ as eerily prophetic of our media-saturated era, its self-absorbed obsession with social networks, and the world of instant, Internet-fuelled celebrity.

‘Warhol was probably the first artist who introduced those concepts on a larger scale, in a way that people outside the worlds that he inhabited could understand,’ she muses. ‘If he were here today, he’d definitely be tweeting!’

Andy Warhol at The MAC