Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

New Spaces: Street Art and the National Gallery of Australia

As mentioned in the previous post, I’ve just returned from Canberra, having spent 2 days there for the opening of ‘Space Invaders’, the National Gallery of Australia’s first ever exhibition of street art.

Whatever you think about the exhibition of street art in gallery spaces, it can’t be denied that it’s a hugely significant moment for the National Gallery in Canberra to stage this exhibition.

But what exactly does it signify?

One of the comments that kept running through conversations on Friday evening at the preview party was a kind of half-joke that this exhibition means that ‘it’s all official’ now: that the exhibition legitimates the activity completely. In some ways, that may be true. It certainly makes it harder to sustain any broad-brush arguments about graffiti and street art as activities which lack any value and simply bespeak social problems. And perhaps the fact that this show is running for 3 months in Canberra and then will tour to other cities over the next year or so means that there will be a gradual and sustained legitimation effect… Perhaps – we’ll see.

But what seems sure already is that the exhibition has allowed street art to find its way into some new spaces. First of all, and most obviously, the show puts street-based works on display within a building which houses images by some of the best-known artists in Australia and internationally (Picasso, Chuck Close, Tracey Moffatt, Fred Williams, to name an eclectic group as examples). And now, exhibited in the same museum as these established luminaries, you can find work by Rone, Vexta, Miso, Meek, and many more. No matter which galleries these artists have been showing in before, it is a huge leap to have work displayed in the National Gallery. (It’s also worth emphasising that the NGA is showing the works inside the museum walls, unlike the Tate Modern in London which displayed street art on its outer walls but did not exhibit any of the works inside the museum.)

But in other ways, the exhibition brought street art into other new spaces. During the opening weekend, some of the artists put up work in the streets of the capital:

Twoone

Tibet

Anthony Lister

And here’s my favourite, a clever piece by Lister, taking the iconic ‘Redhead’ brand of matches and turning it into a demand that Julia Gillard, Australia’s red-haired Prime Minister, ‘bring our troops home':

Apologies for the dim light in the photograph – it was taken on a rainy Canberra night, in which Miso and I got lost trying to find our way home from Canberra’s CBD to the hotel, and discovering that all Canberra streets tend to look the same. And in the midst of all that rain, it was good to see these aesthetic interventions in the bland and clinical spaces of the capital, little moments of disruptions in the smooth space of a city designed without attention to pedestrian culture.

* I don’t mean to imply that there are no street artists in Canberra – there are some very talented ones, such as E.L.K. But the city does not seem hospitable to street art and it would be fantastic if this exhibition altered that in any way.

Space Invaders at the National Gallery of Australia

This is the first of two posts about the opening of the exhibition, Space Invaders, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Exhibition entrance, with work by Ghostpatrol

I’ve just returned from two days there, enjoying the opening festivities.

On Friday night there was a preview of the show prior to its October 30th opening, with a party in the museum’s Gandel Hall and forecourt. I’m told that hundreds of people bought tickets to come to the party (hopefully they also went to see the exhibition). Works from the show were projected on to the museum walls; here’s a selection of some of my favourites:

Anthony Lister

The Yok

Ghostpatrol

Meanwhile, upstairs in the Project Gallery, was the exhibition: a number of rooms containing a selection of the National Gallery of Australia’s large collection of street art (it has purchased over 350 works). The works are displayed with imagination and intelligence, organised according to themes such as ‘Neo-Pop’, ‘Connecting Crews’, ‘Politics and the Press’ and ‘The Return of the Hand’. There’s a display of zines (some of which you are able to read, as well as examine others in glass cases), and surfaces for stickering, with many of the visiting artists taking the opportunity to add their stickers to the display.

The works are displayed in a manner which evokes the street, clustering images together and dispersing others more randomly, with some exhibited high up on the wall and others placed at ground level. The evocation of the street isn’t tackily done, thankfully: it would have been easy for the museum to have strained after some embarassing sense of street credibility, but instead it has retained the look and feel of a gallery space at the same time as showing awareness of how the works would originally have been displayed on the streets.

Other events included artist signings for the show catalogue, the Everfresh Blackbook, and Street/ Studio, plus an artists’ talk, with the curator of the exhibition Jaklyn Babington putting questions to Vexta and Neils Oeltjen about their work in the show and their careers on and off the street.

One of Vexta’s best-known works, Welcome to Australia, is featured in the exhibition:

She and the curator talked about how this work was originally a site-specific piece produced for a show several years ago in a warehouse space in Melbourne. The work was destroyed after the show, and has been recreated on paper as a result of the NGA exhibition. This prompted an interesting discussion about how the exhibition functions as a sneak preview of a time capsule: many of the NGA works were made in the heyday of the stencil art boom in Melbourne in 2003-2004, and purchased soon after; since these works have long since been buffed, painted over, gone over, or faded permanently from the streets, the NGA collection represents a significant archive of works that otherwise would exist only in coffee table books and as digital photographs.

The conversation with Niels Oeltjen brought other issues to the fore as well, such as the politics of street art and its role in ‘city-building’. Neils’s work (like that of some others in the show, such as Miso, Meggs, Ghostpatrol and Lister) also points towards some of the more contemporary directions in street art, using drawing, painting, paper cut-outs, and collages to create work for the streets. Neils was invited to create a work specifically for the exhibition, a glorious confection of colour and shape:

Outside, in the museum forecourt, Everfresh spent the day painting a wall, while a happy crowd of friends, fellow artists and interested visitors sat around on the museum grass and watched:

Rone, Reka and Makatron at work on the wall

In order to acknowledge the importance of zine culture to street art, the museum had also given over its huge Gandel Hall to a zine fair for the whole of Saturday; plus, a short film made by artist Anthony Lister was also screening continuously at the entry to the gallery. The result was a nicely dispersed and variegated set of locations staged throughout the museum: the Project Gallery displaying the artworks, the Gandel Hall with its zine fair, the gift shop selling its catalogues, T shirts and books on street art, the Lister film on a continuous loop, and the outdoor live painting by Everfresh, meaning that visitors moved from inside to outside and back again, as if traversing from the outdoor spaces of the street into the more rarefied space of the gallery and back again…

To end this post, I’ll simply say that the show is well worth seeing. It’s on in Canberra until late February 2011, and will tour to other cities after that. And there’s a beautifully produced catalogue too (in the interests of complete disclosure, I should let you know that I wrote an essay for the catalogue – I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to do so). More about Space Invaders in a subsequent post…..

Space Invaders: The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition of street art

It’s never unproblematic when galleries and museums exhibit the work of street artists – some believe that street art is no longer ‘street art’ when it’s exhibited indoors in a gallery or museum space; others think that whatever constitutes the ‘street’ aspect of street art is more of a free-floating sensibility that pervades certain artworks whether they are installed inside or outside; still others believe that genuine ‘street art’ must be carried out illegally in public space and anything that doesn’t meet these criteria is rather a kind of site-specific artwork or is graphic design work or is even a form of advertising. These issues have been debated and argued over in many different fora (and the book that Miso, Ghostpatrol, Timba and I recently published, Street/Studio, is partly about the tensions – productive as well as constraining – that arise when artworks move between street and gallery).

Whatever your opinion of the street/studio relation and its implication for street art, there is, however, no denying the importance of a major cultural institution putting on a large-scale exhibition of street artwork – and such an exhibition is about to open at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its exhibition, Space Invaders, opens on 30 October (and runs until 27 February 2011, touring in 2011 to other cities). You can read here about the scope of the exhibition, which covers street art’s links to graffiti, its diversity of forms (including stickers, stencils, paste-ups, and so on), its connections to zine culture, the impact of pop culture upon the look of Australian street art, and its recent expansion into labour-intensive media involving drawn images.

I’m going to Canberra this weekend (along with a stellar bunch of some of Australia’s greatest street artists) for the opening festivities, and will be able to report next week on how the exhibition looks…. But it seems impossible to ignore the significance of this particular moment: Australia’s national gallery is putting on an exhibition dedicated to an art form which is often the product of activities deemed illegal by state governments and local councils in Australia, and many of the artists celebrated in the exhibition routinely risk fines or other punishments in order to make the artworks featured in the exhibition. Do we just chalk this up as being yet another instance when municipal and local governments are out of step with wider culture? Or is it time for local and state governments finally to admit that their persecution and prosecution of street artists and graffiti writers is just plain wrong?

‘Where is Mona? She’s long gone…’

So sings Nick Cave, in the opening line of the track ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow’ on No More Shall We Part.

And this line jumped into my head this morning when I walked down a street in Fitzroy to find the Graffiti Removal guys busily washing a wall that I had photographed and posted about only last night (see the previous entry).

One of my favourite recent works, which seems to be signed ‘Mona’, was being buffed.

So if you are walking through the streets of Fitzroy looking for the artworks of Mona, as far as this partoicular site is concerned, ‘she’s long gone’, and what’s left is this:

I guess this must be one of those issues of personal taste. All the other recently added works nearby seemed to be still there; it’s only the ones on this house that have been buffed. Did the residents ask the council to remove it? Or did the council decide that this house should be buffed and not the others? The latter seems unlikely so I’m assuming it’s been done at the residents’ request.

To my mind, this raises lots of interesting issues. In my view, the residents are completely entitled to remove the work if they wish. If an artist puts work up without permission, then there’s always the risk that the person living or working inside the property may not appreciate the art, and wishes to remove it. It’s like if you give someone what you think is a cool T shirt or interesting book for their birthday, but they then ask if they can exchange it for something else – maybe you wish they wouldn’t, but hey, people are entitled to some autonomy about what they read and wear. Same with street art, I guess. If you don’t like it, I guess you can remove it (although many wish that removal wouldn’t happen quite so often or quite so speedily).

But the problem is that what’s left here really don’t look great, and so this raises the question of the technologies of graffiti removal. It’s like painting out graffiti but leaving a mismatched square of paint that just looks odd, or blasting off bill posters and leaving tattered strands of paper hanging from the wall. All of these techniques seem to be acceptable to many people, so it makes me wonder how aesthetics are being operationalised, such that blurry lines of faded paint, tattered paper or sloppily rollered paint looks ‘OK’ to those making the decisions about removal (whether these are council workers or residents). Perhaps these individuals would say that the ultimate solution is for artists not to put up work in the first place, thus obviating the need for removal, in all its imperfections.

I don’t agree. I think that it would be far more useful to have a debate about the aesthetics of the street, in which the effects of removal can be compared to the process of leaving a piece to weather and fade, or in which people can learn to appreciate that some streets are going to be modified in various ways as part of the culture of an area or a city, and in which artists can learn what types of image will work best on different kinds of surface…. I’d like to take part in such a debate, and I think others would too.

ADDENDUM:

By coincidence, Art of the State has a post about some magical stuff being done in London by the Toasters, in which they adapt those painted-out shapes and make them into new pieces of art…

ADDENDUM 2: Take a look at the link in the comment by Seldom which follows this entry – there’s a really interesting essay by ESPO (Steve Powers) about the pointlessness of painting over graffiti.

New works in Fitzroy….

After a lot of travelling this year, it’s good to be home, and to be here to stay for a while (except for a weekend in Canberra that’s coming up, about which more later).

And it’s wonderful to be back in Fitzroy, where a lot of activity has been taking place on the streets.

Here are some of the things I’ve seen since returning:

Close up of a new work by Miso

Sticker by Miso

Ghostpatrol

There’s an interesting installation piece on Smith Street, involving boxes attached to poles, with text on mirrored surfaces:

As you can see, this one reads ‘thief'; there are others which read ‘liar’ and ‘loser’. Nice stuff. Since first posting about this, Vetti (of Live in Northcote) contacted me to let me know this installation is by Nick Ilton, and Nick himself has sent me a link to a little video which provides a nice summary of the guerilla sculptures he has been placing around Melbourne in recent weeks. Check it out here.

I’ve seen a lot of fresh paste-ups, such as these, outside the Sutton Gallery on Brunswick Street:

You can find these near Alimentari, where there’s been a lot of activity:

And this is pretty striking:

It’s nice to be home.

Burning Candy on film

Anyone living in London or who has visited London in the last few years would have to be aware of Burning Candy, the prolific graffiti crew who have made a speciality out of painting both on London’s walls and shutter doors and on top of its rooftops.

Check out the peg by Gold Peg and the monkey face by Mighty Mo, high above Oxford Street

It’s a large crew, both male and female writers, with a huge range of ages – as one commentator said, there aren’t many crews where some of the members are old enough to be the parents of other members… Each member has developed an idiosyncratic style, so that individual works are immediately recognisable: you can walk around London for hours and spot works by Mighty Mo, Dscreet, Cyclops, Cept, Gold Peg, Rowdy, Sweet Toof, Tek33, LL Brainwashed, . Each member has a particular icon or device that they repeat in their works – for example, crocodiles (Rowdy), teeth (Sweet Toof), owls (Dscreet), pegs (Goldpeg) and so on. The crew members also do works together, marrying their individual styles into huge pieces that have become iconic works in London street art culture.

Members of Burning Candy are being featured in a film called Dots, which is being made by the crew themselves, and as such is an intensely authentic piece of work. The premise behind the film is that each featured member travels to another country to discover links between their own art practices and the art practices in other cultures, often involving an investigation of the meaning of their chosen icon: thus Rowdy travels to Australia to discover the meaning of the crocodile in Australian indigenous culture; Cyclops travels to India to see his inspiration in situ (Indian street signs)…

I’ve been lucky enough to see a trailer for this film, and it’s clearly going to be an amazing piece of work. If you are heading to the Film Night of the Sweet Streets festival in Melbourne on 14 October, you’ll get to see some of Dots then. You can read more about the film on its official website here.

But Dots is still a work-in-progress, and funds are needed to complete it. It is being funded by the sales of a boxset of Burning Candy works – selling art (the prints) to support the making of art (the film). Purchasing a box set doesn’t just gain you an amazing collection of prints: it also gets you a co-producer credit and percentage in the film.

Images to Live By isn’t really intended for the promotion of particular exhibitions or books or artists: the line between promotion and commentary is a fluid and flexible one but I try to stay on the commentary side rather than get into the promotion of particular events or people. But I did want to mention the need for funding assistance for Dots because I think Burning Candy have had such an important impact on London street culture and have been such an inspiration for many other artists all over the world… The film looks like it will be fantastic and I hope that enough funds can be generated to help the guys finish it. Funding strategies such as these have been used by other artists and film-makers (for example Todd Chandler’s Flood Tide, which arose out of Swoon’s Swimming Cities projects, read more about that film here) and it seems like a great way to circumvent the strictures and constraints of conventional funding options. So if you are interested in street art and can consider purchasing a boxset, take a look at the website… If the boxset is out of your price range, there’s a cool T-Shirt too!

And whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to check out Dots at the Sweet Streets Film Night in Melbourne on the 14th.

Sweet Streets

I’m back in Melbourne, arrived a few days ago and still propping my eyelids open to combat the jetlag, but at least the weather this weekend is helping me get used to being in the southern hemisphere again – Melbourne looks its sparkling best, bathed in sunshine and with one of those amazing clear Australian blue skies….

But also helping me keep awake is the knowledge that Sweet Streets is on…. The erstwhile Melbourne Stencil Festival has been re-designed to take account of the huge range of street-based art activities that we find in Melbourne and in other cities, and the result is Sweet Streets. During the Festival, you can find exhibitions of some brilliant artwork, both local and from overseas; workshops on everything from stencil-making to yarn-bombing; and some film-based visual enjoyment too – the DVD of Exit Through the Gift Shop is being launched during the Festival, and there’s even a dedicated Film Night, showcasing some amazing looking documentaries.

Check out the Festival website for further details….

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