Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

2008 – the best and worst….

Newspapers are full of these ‘best of…’ and ‘worst of…’ lists right now, and reading some of them got me thinking about some of the great (and not so great) moments in art and cinema this year. What follows is a really incomplete – and really subjective – list of images that I’ve been happy to live by in 2008. In no particular order (and apologies for repeating some topics already written about, but they still deserve to be mentioned as some of the great moments of 2008):

•    Jose Parla’s work. I saw his show at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London, and I think his images are gorgeous. You can read more about Jose’s work here.

•    Miso and Ghostpatrol’s show, ‘Nesting and Dying’, at metro5 Gallery in Melbourne. Beautiful works, beautifully installed in the space.

•    Seeing Brad Downey’s presentation of a series of short films about his ‘street sculptures’, at the Tate in London.

•    The Kill Pixie show at Until Never Gallery in Melbourne.

•    C215’s work, all over London in July. Some of it is still around, like this:

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•    The JR show at Lazarides. Haunting.

•    Being shown some new works by Elbow Toe, freshly unpacked and ready to hang, at Stolen Space in London.

•    Meeting the artist who paints these cats all over Amsterdam:

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•    Walking around San Francisco with Russell Howze.

•    Regan Tamanui’s portrait of my daughter. Love it!

•    Spotting new Invader works around Melbourne several times during this year. How many did he put up? Fantastic!

•    Watching the Mikosa mural evolve.

•    The Cans Festival in the Leake Street tunnel. Awesome. Both times.

•    Meggs’s show at Dont Come gallery in Melbourne.

•    Seeing Hunger, by Steve McQueen.

•    Seeing the Peak Hours sticker being put up on the London Underground. I would still love to know whose work that is… Thanks to everyone who contacted me about the sticker.

•    Seeing Gilbert (of Gilbert & George) walk past on Brick Lane.

•    The Sidney Nolan show at the NGV. I’m not an Australian, so I don’t have the attachment to the Ned Kelly iconography that an Aussie does, but I still thought Nolan’s images were breath-taking.

•    Meeting Laser 3.14.

•    Logan Hicks’s show at Stolen Space in July. No space could have suited his works more.

Regrets….

Every year has to have some of these. Again in no particular order:

•    Too many great shows missed, one way or another. MuTate Britain in London, the Poesia Urbana show at Famous When Dead Gallery, Acorn’s solo show in Melbourne, Locust Jones at Until Never. And many more. What can you do?

•    Not photographing the ‘little diver’ stencil by Banksy in Cocker Alley before it had silver paint poured over it. I walked past it so many times, always thinking, ‘yeah, I’ll take a picture some other day’. Strange how something becomes part of the cityscape and then – gone.

•    The Victorian State Government’s new anti-graffiti laws. Perhaps 2009 will bring some greater appreciation of street art in Victoria – but I will not be holding my breath.

•    The Bill Henson debacle. So many people should be ashamed of their roles in this business. And its aftermath continues, with new, incredibly strict, rules governing the production of images of children.

•    All those times I didn’t have my camera with me when I came upon some amazing image on the wall.

This is the last post for 2008. Back in a few weeks.

“I know I have lost”….

Loss has been a bit of a theme in this blog off and on. The previous post was called ‘Losing Banksy’ (about the destruction of a Banksy stencil in Melbourne’s CBD), and back in October I wrote about how I felt upon discovering that one of my favourite C215 stencils had been buffed (‘Losing the image’).

And now, more loss…. But here’s why: last week I had been scrolling through photos that I’ve taken on various trips recently, and I came across this image:

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The location is a side-street near the Tate Modern; I had been doing the ‘walking tour’ that the Tate organised as part of its Street Art exhibition. A number of works had been created and installed in locations close to the museum, and then maps indicating these locations were given to Tate visitors. I had been dutifully walking around the relevant streets, looking at the various images, and feeling that there was something a little sterile, a little forced, about the whole exercise, when I came across these words, meticulously painted onto a wall, not part of the walking tour, placed there by some unknown writer who knows how long ago.

In some respects, its meaning is so plain. ‘I know I have lost': what ambiguity could possibly be said to exist in those words? And yet, it’s worth hesitating over… Lost what, exactly? The way? Self-respect? A ten-pound note? Love?

And why not just state “I have lost’? It’s the conjoining of ‘I know’ with ‘I have lost’ that makes it so powerful –  it’s not simply that something has been lost. Loss is registered through our knowledge of the fact of loss.

Over the weekend, I had been going to write about how simple and how satisfying I think this is; however, the destruction of the Banksy stencil, and the media reaction to it, provided a more pressing issue. But then Monday brought news of another loss: my partner learned that his father had died suddenly. It’s hard to do justice to the magnitude of that kind of pain, but in some strange way the ambiguity of those simple words on a wall in Southwark have sedimented the grief and sadness experienced over the last few days. ‘I know I have lost’.

Losing Banksy…

There’s been a lot of discussion since the weekend about what’s happened to the famous Banksy stencil in Melbourne’s CBD. This stencil is famous for two reasons: first because not many of Banksy’s works, painted during a visit here in 2003, remain in Melbourne; and, secondly, because plexiglass plastic had been screwed over the top of it to protect and preserve it, thus singling it out from the mass of stencils and street artworks in Melbourne.

It seems that someone has poured silver paint down the back of the plexiglass, so that the image is now obscured. On top of the plexiglass, the words ‘Banksy woz ere’ have been written in black marker pen.

Here’s what it all looks like (photo sent to me by Miso, who found it on Nice Produce):

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You can see a news report about this here.

I have some pretty mixed reactions to what’s happened. Yes, it’s definitely sad to see the end of a cute little stencil. And it’s a bit frustrating if the stencil has been destroyed in order to provide whoever did it with a quick thrill of excitement.

But…

There’s a lot more that needs to be said about what has happened. For example, why get worked up about this image in particular? Other images done by Banksy in Melbourne have also been lost over the years, such as this classic ‘Laugh now…’ ape, which I photographed in Richmond back in 2003:

rchbanksy

It is long gone, painted over by Yarra City Council. Its disappearance wasn’t remarked by the media. So why is the loss of the ‘little diver’ so noteworthy now? Ah, but wait…. In recent years, Banksy has been the object of much media interest as well as seeing his works suddenly increase in value (in fact, a version on canvas of the same image that I photographed in Richmond in 2003 sold at Bonhams ‘urban art’ auction in London, in February this year, for 80,000 pounds).

And many other stencils and street artworks have also disappeared, without finding themselves to be the subject of news reports or mass ‘mourning’. Why is their loss not so noteworthy? Works have been put up by local and visiting artists all over Melbourne, only for them to be painted over, or torn down, and thus vanish. Perhaps it’s only the disappearance of Banksy’s work that merits comment in the mainstream media?

I also suspect that the media is reporting on this because the work appears to have been destroyed by an individual who can be portrayed as a ‘vandal’. As I mentioned, Yarra City Council painted over Banksy’s apron-wearing ape, along with rats such as this one…

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When a council, or a property owner, buffs street artworks or graffiti, the media doesn’t represent them as ‘vandalising’ the images – instead, no doubt the council would be seen as exercising its ‘graffiti management strategy’ and a property owner would be ‘cleaning’ the surface.

I’m sure a large part of the media’s interest in what has happened to Banksy’s stencil is because it allows them to have their cake and eat it too – they can express regret at the loss of the stencil while implicitly condemning whoever did it.

To me, the whole event brings up a number of issues that are worth thinking about. One relates to the protective plexiglass that was placed over the stencil. The news story that I read stated that it was the building owners who asked for the protective covering; in conversations with people around Melbourne in the past I’ve heard it said that Melbourne City Council decided to protect the stencil. I don’t know which is correct, and in some ways it doesn’t matter, because what interests me is less who put the plexiglass there and more the fact that suddenly there has developed the desire to preserve street artworks along with (apparently) the technology to do so.

I started thinking about this recent phenomenon back in July, when I visited Cargo in London. Cargo is a desperately hip bar in Shoreditch, famous for its courtyard area where the walls have been painted by a range of street artists. Some of its panels get painted over as different artists visit: for example, in July there was a fantastic panel painted by Logan Hicks; by October when I went back, it had gone and a new piece was up instead. Exceptions to this process of renewal are two panels by Banksy, which have been covered in plexiglass. You can see one of these here (and in the photo you can see some weird reflections caused by the plexiglass covering):

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The Cargo courtyard demonstrates the emergence of a hierarchy in the way mainstream culture is responding to street art. It’s a hierarchy that is clearly related to ‘the Banksy effect’, in which Banksy’s works are treated differently than others (they sell for more money, they are the subject of more media interest, they are ‘protected’ where others are not).

Leaving the ‘Banksy effect’ aside (and I’m not trying to be critical of Banksy here, since this phenomenon has arisen mainly through the responses of others to his work rather than through direct actions of his own), is the desire to ‘preserve’ street art a good thing?

I have to say I’m suspicious of what the plexiglass represents. It seems like an attempt to pin down something that shouldn’t be ‘frozen’ in this way. And am I sad at the loss of the little diver stencil? I know I have expressed sadness at ‘losing’ an image in the past (see the entry ‘Losing the image’ in October this year), but in this instance I am much more ambivalent. I think what has been done to the image draws our attention to the plexiglass as much as it destroys the image behind it. As such, if it makes people think about what hypocrisy might be present when one work (or the works of just one artist) can be placed behind plexiglass, then perhaps that will assist the public debate that still needs to take place around street art. And as for whether this is an act of ‘vandalism’, well, in some ways it might be, but if we take a moment to look at what has actually been done, then it’s a little more complex than that.

How can we read the meaning of writing ‘Banksy woz ere’? Well, it is quite a funny, literal, demonstration of what has happened. A Banksy stencil was here, and now these words are here instead. Or, Banksy himself was here in person, and is now gone. And of course ‘Banksy woz ere’ evokes the famous ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti of the 1970s onwards, in which an anonymous male character seemed to travel the world, leaving only his enigmatic images on walls. A bit like Banksy, really.

So if the stencil had to disappear (and most street artworks will disappear, some day, one way or another), then this might not be a bad way to go.

More JR

It will be clear from my earlier post (‘The power of vision': JR and the women) that I am fascinated by the work of JR, the French street artist who works with portrait photography to make extremely interesting interventions around race, gender and violence.

I’ve been trying to find online clips from the film that I saw in London, which concerned the women of the favela Morra da Providencia in Rio de Janeiro. No luck so far, but what I have found is a brief excerpt from another part of the 28 Millimetres: Women project, described as a ‘trailer’ and called ‘Women Are Heroes’. JR travelled to a range of African countries which could variously be described as at best ‘post-conflict’ and at worst ‘at war’: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Kenya among others. This little film shows many of the same cinematic devices used in the one I saw in London – the jittery camera work (used to a lesser degree here), the hypnotic, repetitive music, the telling of stories of violence and loss. It has its differences too: in this film, we hear JR himself narrating his intentions for the project, and it features a slightly more conventional, documentary-style telling of one woman’s story.

There are other films on YouTube  showing different aspects of JR’s work (for example, in the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris), all of which are well worth watching too. But this one has an intensity that comes very close to the experience I had, sitting in the Lazarides gallery in London, with women’s faces pasted all over its ceiling, floor and walls, watching the women of Morro da Providencia on screen. If you do watch the little film I’ve included here, I should also give a bit of a warning: some of this film is very distressing.

Fade to grey

Recently I wrote about buffing, the different ways in which councils, governments and property owners seek to erase any graffiti or street art that has been added to a wall or surface.

For many works of street art, the buff represents their fate, sometimes far sooner than the artist would like. One day the image is there, next day it’s gone – painted over, scraped off.

But sometimes an image evades the buff and remains in place for a long, long time. Its longevity might derive from its being tucked away in a hard-to-notice spot, so that years go by and the work has actually only been seen by a few people. Or it might have been placed somewhere that’s hard to reach – hard for the artist who put it there, but also hard for any cleaning crew, which means that a work can stay up for years. And sometimes, even when a work is prominently visible, easy to access, and illegally located, it somehow escapes the buff, and just slowly and gradually disappears, fading back into the stone.

Within street art culture, there seems to be a lot of admiration, and often rightly so, for newly painted work: images that look glossy and shiny, which haven’t been weathered or degraded in any way (by the addition of tags or the application of posters on top, for example). And I’ve heard people say that work which is fading ‘looks old’, ‘tired’ and so on, and to a certain extent that’s true.

But some artists like to see the effects of these external forces and circumstances on their artworks. Miso, for example, is interested in the peeling and fraying that can arise when a pasted-up image experiences the effects of hot sun, rain, wind. And JR’s pasted-up photographic posters register the impact of the environment pretty fast – his work on the façade of the Tate Modern was repaired by the gallery after only a matter of weeks in place, thanks to a damp British summer. For these artists, though, the possibility of deterioration isn’t a problem, but is rather an integral part of their artistic practice – it’s something they actively invite.

Beyond this, though, I think it’s also worth looking at fading artworks, even when that gradual disappearance and deterioration isn’t part of the artist’s stated intentions. It takes quite a time for a painted work on stone to fade – usually months or even years, which means these greying images have a lifespan that’s quite remarkable given the frequency of buffing and going-over by other artists.

Here’s a fading Banksy. To see the remains of it, it’s best to click on the image to make it bigger. Look at the top step, where there are some words still faintly visible:
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It reads ‘designated picnic area’ and is stencilled on the steps of an office building in a busy road in Shoreditch in London. It’s scarcely legible now, almost vanished back into the steps, its humour and incongruity about to depart the scene.

And take a look at this one:

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It looks like a red smudge on the pavement, but it’s the remains of another Banksy. If you look more closely at the wall next to the smudge, you can see the traces of the two rats stencilled on the walls:

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These rats were kitted out as waiters in a fancy restaurant, with the red smudge actually a red carpet. The rats have faded more than the red carpet, and you need to know what was there in order to make sense of what remains. I’m indebted in this respect to Martin Bull’s useful little book, Banksy Locations and Tours (details available from his website), which has a photograph of the work before it started to fade.

So how should we make sense of the fading artwork? Do we dismiss it as occupying some transitional zone between ‘freshness’ and oblivion? Do we paint over it so that new work can take its place? Does its faded nature mean that it is no longer worth noticing or thinking about?

In some ways, I think it’s the very ‘in between-ness’ of the fading image that makes it interesting. Not quite here and not quite gone, maybe having an almost historical value as a record of what was done in the past, but gradually relinquishing any claim on our attention amidst the visual hubbub of the contemporary city. So next time you walk through the streets, perhaps it’s worth paying homage to these fading images, these survivors who have, through chance or circumstance, escaped both the buff and the privileging of the new work of art.

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