Empire State Building […] It’s the nearest thing to heaven
Deborah Kerr in “An affair to remember”
Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — A couple of months ago the City Art Museum in Amsterdam showed an overview of Andy Warhol’s work. I was thrilled to see my favourite Warhol for the first time: Empire. It reminded me of a haunting story the Swedish artist Christian Andersson once told me.
Andy Warhol filmed the Empire State Building on a summer night in 1964 from the 41st floor of the Rockefeller Foundation, which is just a couple of blocks away. The film is an 8-hour static shot of the building. Nothing happens and after 7 hours foreplay, Empire rises to a climax when the building’s floodlights, which highlight the top, are switched on.
According to Andersson the original view had been blocked for several decades by, yes, the World Trade Center. Therefore, the destruction of the Twin Towers not only re-established the Empire State Building as tallest building in New York, it also re-enabled the original view of Warhol’s Empire.
I’ve never been to New York, so my suspicious mind needed proof. Unfortunately, in reality it seems to be the other way around and the Empire State Building was blocking the view on the former World Trade Centre instead. The Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Centre are exactly aligned, kind of like the ‘voie triomphale’ (the triumphant view) of Paris, the axis of the Louvre, the Arche de Triomphe and the Arche de la Défence.
Nevertheless, the comparison between the 9-11 attacks and Warhol’s Empire kept following me and remains interesting I think. Both deal with the symbolic power of a New York / American monument. Al Quaeda attacked it; Warhol celebrated it. Or does he not? It’s always difficult to say what Warhol’s intensions were, for any of his works for that matter. His inscrutable character and incomprehensive statements completely obscure any reading of his work, at least with regards to his own intentions. Of course, we can draw some conclusions from the title. ‘Empire’ tentatively points out the imperial nature of global economy, ‘a universal order that excepts no boundaries or limits’ (from ‘Empire’ by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt).
An earlier version of Empire provides some more clues about the intentions of Warhol. It included a voice recording of a conversation between Warhol and Henry Romney, owner of the Rockefeller Foundation, who is complaining about the use of marihuana by Warhol’s associates and is utterly displeased and riddled by the film. The conversation holds one charming and poetic statement by Warhol (about the floodlights going on at night):
It’s so beautiful. The lights come on and the stars come out […] It’s like Flash Gordon riding into space.
Yet, the one that went into history is a description that leaves no doubt about Warhol’s true feelings towards the building:
It’s an 8-hour hard-on
When I started to dig further into the histories of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Centre it turned out that they share more similarities. Oddly enough, the Empire State Building has also suffered a plane crash. In the early morning of July 28th 1945 an army B25 bomber got lost in the thick morning fog and pierced into the 70th floor of the building, which, ironically, housed the Catholic War Relief Office. The pilots and 11 employees of the War Relief Office were killed. But there was also one survivor. A woman, trapped in the elevator, fell down 75 floors and survived. And that’s not the only miracle the building has witnessed. It accounts for 34 suicides, two of which failed when these unhappy ‘happy few’ were blown back on the building by strong wind.
Empire’s notorious reputation has also reached the virtual world. When I was mapping out the World Trade Centre, the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center, I discovered that Empire doesn’t only reign in the sky over New York, it has also conquered the cities’ cyber ‘space’ in Google Earth. The 3D feature in the program enables you to construct a 3-dimensional image of the city and I was able to re-enact Warhol’s masterpiece in today’s cyber space. Underneath you see the view that Warhol had approximately from the Rockefeller Center. ‘Empire’ was filmed with a telelens and unfortunately Google Earth isn’t advanced enough to recreate that view, yet… I would guess that pretty soon we won’t need the real world anymore to make such great art.
I have a gut feeling that Andy would have loved it.