Andy Warhol's Kiss

The Museum of Modern Art

Through March 21
by Mary Walling Blackburn

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      Andy Warhol. Kiss (1963-64). 16mm film (black and white, silent). 54 min. at 16fps. @ 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

      In Andy Warhol’s Kiss (1963-64) couples neck until the light flares and dies out and the next couple begins.

      It is strung together on 16mm film, shot at 24 frames per second and projected at 16 frames per second. Originally, singular make-out sessions were screened before feature-length films in 1963 at the Gramercy Arts Theater on East 27th Street in Manhattan. But eventually Warhol began to align the previews in a manner that was in accord with Structuralist cinema, with duration and his own desire to capitalize on others’ limits, both audience and actor.

      The mechanics of the kiss are such that the kisser is suspended in a threshold state: in between the act of eating and being eaten, pivoting between bite and smile. Chronological time can’t cope with the kiss because it performs our longing for something infinite. In this case, the infinite is without language or currency, both time-dependent mediums. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ theorizing around the kiss postulates that it is “eating without nourishment.” But the kiss is also touching without reproduction, sexual or mechanical. Here, a series of kisses performs a syncopation untouched by Taylorism, a 20th century method of regulating and repeating each worker’s gesture towards maximum production.

      Kiss’s languid and repetitive tempo is meditative to some (behind me, a boy sleeps through) but others manhandle it; they refuse it by walking out or speaking through it. In total, the film clocks in at 54 minutes. No one seated starts to kiss. We occupy our mouths in any other way.

      Collectively, we’re a vulnerable audience. We might be suffused with longing; our emotions might be organized by a sense of alienation, unable to identify with disembodied (primarily) white celebrity heads cum death masks. The only black subject in the film, Rufus Collins slowly grazes the mouth of the woman beneath him, Naomi Levine. Later, Collins will be cast as a vampire in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but in this moment, there’s nothing camp, just the slowness of an open-mouthed kiss that never ceases nor escalates. Naomi Levine is paired in succession with multiple men. Gerard Malanga is also paired with multiple men. Is this acting? Is this love? Warhol directs the kiss as social transaction. Its mouth and tongue as time and motion are tethered to a script.

      The phalanx of kissers in Warhol’s Kiss are heir to the Japanese Awaji puppeteers who manipulate life-size dolls with their hands and bodies. A real person pretends to be an automoton pretending to be real. Think mise-en-abyme. The kiss is artifice: a Make Out Factory, manufacturing the rip-off. But I resist this reduction: in these serial kisses, there’s real sunlight on real skin, worn bedclothes and a pedestrian sofa. I want this gesture, regardless of Warhol’s attention to the capital of the body, to be the exception. I want this mouth against another mouth to have no utility but the kiss alone.

      The world’s record for the longest kiss (2010) is 33 hours. The contest regulations demand: “The kiss must be continuous and the lips must be touching at all times. The couple must be awake at all times.” They cannot defecate or urinate. The abject is the sleeping lover, soiled. In a late capitalist life, the kiss is political capital. The 2010 celebrants of the world’s longest kiss are two men who are not in love; they are activists, participating in the self-described “LBGT uprising”. This makes sense as a stratagem. But its sentimentality and normativity make it decidedly undifferentiated from ordinary expressions of heterosexual affection. What of long kisses in wet pants? Kissers that bite one another awake? The ear purposefully swapped for the mouth? And even, perhaps to extend the argument posed in The Screwball Asses by Guy Hocquenghem, the next record for longest kiss (this time around with bathroom breaks and moments of rest and instances where the mouth has strayed from the lips to the hair) will be celebrated by a gay man and a lesbian woman, as record of a more complicated liberation. Maybe it will be a year-long film projected at 16 frames per second. It projects in your hallway; each time you leave your bedroom to get a glass of water, the lesbian and the gay man are kissing, flickering, laughing. In this fantasy, we witness the kissers’ failure to beat the record in the spirit of carnival, with all its joyous subversions.

      In real life, to make record, the kiss has become an ordeal. (Exhausted by replication and rule.) But the image is not guilty, it is the path thrashed to it.

      Kiss is on view in Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art through March 21.

      Thanks to Pascale Gatzen for our conversation and the observation that “the image is not guilty.”

      Mary Walling Blackburn, artist and writer, presented "Accidental Pornographies: Lesson Plans 1-9: " at testsite in September. Recently a Visiting Artist at Cooper-Union School for the Arts, she lives in Brooklyn. Her work can be found at welcomedoubleagent.com and anhoekschool.org.