Archive for the ‘Anthony Lister’ Tag

Outpost!

I’m in Sydney, visiting Outpost: Art From the Streets, a street art festival being held on Cockatoo Island (I’ll be participating in a forum on The Politics of Street Art, along with Tom Civil, Mini Graff, and fellow academic Kurt Iveson, who writes the blog Cities and Citizenship).

Outpost, if you can believe the advertising, is the largest festival of street art to date in the southern hemisphere. It’s located on Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour, and certainly this setting is one of the factors that make it a compelling experience. The island is the largest in Sydney’s gorgeous harbour, and has been a prison, a school, a jail, and a shipyard – its most recent incarnation prior to being abandoned as a kind of monument to a bygone age, with empty warehouses, rusting equipment and gigantic cranes dotted about. You can read about the island’s past and recent uses here.

It’s a clever choice as a location for a street art festival. The warehouses, factories, and alleyways provide an urban backdrop for the display of street artworks; street artists have often been drawn to abandoned buildings as sites in which to make art, although the resulting artworks are not easily viewed by members of the public. And in Australia, such locations have a specific history in the world of street art: during the early 2000s in Melbourne, the famous ‘Empty’ shows would take over abandoned or derelict buildings for the creation and temporary display of art.

Although Outpost draws on this rich history, it is, of course, is a world away from it in that it has corporate sponsorship, a merchandising outlet (for souvenir T shirts and caps), a couple of laid-back bars selling pizza and beer, and a well-organised staff who assist visitors in getting their bearings on the island, handing out maps and answering questions about the artists, and who oversee the queues waiting for ferries back to Circular Quay. To that extent, Outpost is definitely a product of a certain ‘mainstreaming’ of street art – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but visitors should go to see it aware that what’s been created is a somewhat sanitised and domesticated version of what street art can be.

Having said that, Outpost still makes for an extremely interesting and exciting event, and I would say if you can get to Sydney during November, or if you already live here, it’s a must-see.

So what’s there to be seen? Well dozens of artworks and installations, for one thing, many using the buildings and the geography of the island in really satisfying and innovative ways: Vexta’s enormous winged figure; Roa’s monochrome animals; the Everfresh piece mocking anti-graffiti laws; Lister’s giant inflatables painted with his now-signature faces and super-heroes; some cuprocking high above the bluff rising from the centre of the island; artworks lining a long tunnel through the bluff (evoking the tunnels and drains that so many artists have painted over the years, whether that be Melbourne’s Cave Clan or the artists in the Underbelly project in New York City).

Have a look:

One disappointing thing I was struck by is that many artists have been given hoardings to paint on, which are then displayed around the island. There’s a lot of uniformity to the size of these hoardings and in the way they are displayed, and I found myself wishing that there had been a tad more ingenuity in thinking through the question of how artists could display their abilities.

What else? Inside some of the buildings are various exhibits. One displays works from two private collections of street art, which means that you can see examples of work on canvas or print editions by Faile, Adam Neate, Antony Micallef, Swoon, Dolk, Lucy MacClauchlan and, of course, Banksy. There are over two dozen works by Banksy on display, and there’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing them, even though – or perhaps because – they are so well-known….

Other exhibit areas include Pastemodernism 3, a vast collection of examples of paste-ups, curated by Ben Frost:

It’s also nice to see a number of artists being given a lot of space in which to display their (very different work). Junky Projects, for example, has created some very large found-object sculpture:

And there’s a wonderful work by Tom Civil, ‘Let the Lightning Flash and the Thunder Roll’ showcasing his distinctive combination of political sensibility, political engagement, calligraphy, and composition:

But for me, the highlight of a day which had many pleasures was the piece by Kid Zoom. Inside one of the massive abandoned buildings on the island can be found ‘Home’, a work with several components, the most obvious of which is the large model of the house in which Kid Zoom grew up:

If you enter the building at the back, as I did, then you can immediately see that the rear of the house is open. Inside a video plays on a loop, displaying another element of the work, described as ‘the destruction of three Holden Commodores’. On a screen, we see a figure, in slow motion, approach three cars, all parked in a line, and meticulously lay waste to them in various ways: one is set spectacularly on fire; a mallet is used to smash their windscreens, side mirrors are kicked off. (Some of it reminded me of Shaun Gladwell’s amazing works ‘Storm Sequence’ and Stereo Sequences.) A soundtrack accompanies the film, combining industrial noise with slow repeated musical notes. The effect is mesmerising, overwhelming: when the film ended, several audience members who had been watching audibly exhaled…

And then, when the film ended, I walked around to the front of the house to discover that the three Holden cars are parked outside it, end-to-end, just as they appear in the film:

And then you realise that the film was made inside that same building, which brings the violence just watched on the screen into the building itself, and puts you in the position of being a witness to that destruction twice over: once on the screen, and then again as you stand next to the burned out shells of the cars.

It’s an incredibly powerful work, and it utilises the space brilliantly, both in its making and in its display. If there was nothing but Kid Zoom’s ‘Home’ on display at Outpost, it would be worth making the trip to Cockatoo Island for it alone; as it is, it’s the high point of an exhibition that, for good and ill, showcases many of the defining characteristics of the street art world today: its collectability; its proximity to advertising; its proximity to ‘vandalism’; its political nature; its too-often repeated visual tropes but also its sheer, undeniable aesthetic joys.

The Underbelly Project

As is by now well known to almost everybody with an interest in street art (and to quite a few more besides), a massive art project was organised by two individuals in New York City, and carried out with the involvement of more than 100 different artists from a range of countries – The Underbelly Project.

News of Underbelly recently broke in the New York Times and the London Times , and it’s fair to say that there has been quite the media furore about it.

(For many Australian readers, it may come as both a relief and a surprise to learn that ‘Underbelly’ refers to something other than an initially interesting and then subsequently tacky TV show on Channel 9….)

Underbelly, as an art project, is one of great audacity. It displays the work of the 100-plus artists on walls around a disused subway station in New York City. Painting had to be done in secret, during the night, and at some risk to the participants. It involved months of planning, organisation and execution, including documenting the artwork through photography and film. Artists whose work is displayed include Faile, Anthony Lister, Swoon, Indigo, Logan Hicks, Dan Witz, Rone, Meggs, PAC, Stormie Mills, Remi/Rough, Elbow-toe, Roa, Imminent Disaster, Mark Jenkins, Sheone, Smith/Sane, Revok and many more. You can see some of the works on Vandalog among other sites.

In April this year, I spent a few weeks in New York City, and met up with one of the two people behind Underbelly. I watched as he scrolled through dozens of astonishing photographs on his computer, explaining how lights had to be brought into the pitch blackness of the tunnel both for the artists to work and for the documentation of the process to be possible. Once the final piece had been painted, he told me, the entrance to the platform would be sealed off, and the location would be kept secret, so that the art would remain, and the documentation would attest to its existence, but no-one would be able to sell the images or to destroy it (time and the inhospitably humid environment of the tunnel would do that).

Hearing this account and seeing the images, I was quite awestruck. The project is so huge – partly because of the number of artists involved, with many coming from overseas, so even simply the logistics of coordinating visits to the tunnel, and allocating space within it was a major undertaking. It is also huge in that its execution took place over several months, in which the project, its nature and location must have been one of the best kept secrets in street art.

I was also captivated by the idea of taking street art underground, to a location that intersects with the history of graffiti and subway writing. I listened to the account of how the project would be independent of the art market, with the works existing within the tunnel, unable to be sold off afterwards (something that sounded extremely compelling, given that even works placed on the street for public enjoyment have often been removed in order to be sold).

And I must admit what got me the most was the idea that the tunnel would be sealed and no-one would be able to get in to see the artworks. It did give me a slight pang to think that such amazing works would be hidden from all spectators, but that was far outweighed for me by the romance of the idea that the artists would make the works, underground, in secret, in a space that acknowledges street art’s debt to the cultures of subway writing, and then that space, with all its beautiful artworks, would be sealed….

The very motivation behind Underbelly was a romantic one, I think. The project was born in the shared appreciation of two individuals for the empty and forgotten spaces of the city. It remained true to that shared sensibility; and it did not warp into something commercial.

It was one of the most exciting initiatives that I have come across, in all the years I’ve been thinking and researching in this area.

It felt incredibly exciting to see the media coverage of the project, and to see photographs of the works published so that they could be seen by others.

And my admiration for its creators knows no bounds.

But over the last several days, it would seem that, amongst the admiration and appreciation that has been offered, there are those who see Underbelly differently. Some seem to see it as a challenge, as if the organisers are saying, ‘go on, try and find it, bet you can’t…’ (see here for a forum in which some discuss how to find the tunnel and their experience of being arrested in doing so). Others seem to see it as a provocation, as though its existence needs to be condemned: this includes, interestingly, both the police, who are basically stationed at the location at present and arresting anyone who enters it, and individuals who have reportedly entered the tunnel and trashed some of the works. Still others have criticised the project’s creators, accusing them of cashing in,by making a documentary film about the project (this seems like such a bizarre criticism, given that the organisers felt that a film would allow a wider audience to get access to works that would otherwise be hidden from view. Full disclosure: I was interviewed about the project for the film.).

So: is there no romance left in street art? Maybe cynicism has taken hold of many of these commentators and critics, but in my opinion, the very existence of The Underbelly Project is a testament to the fact that some people in the world of street art (from the organisers through the artists who took part to the bloggers who visited the site and kept its secrets) still believe there is a place for hopeless romance amid the commercial imperatives of the market.

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.

O Superman

Sometimes travel provides an occasion to reflect upon the place you’ve left behind… While I was in New York recently, there were two different kinds of ‘home’ that I felt conscious of having left.

One was England (or Britain, I suppose). I left Britain in 1995, when I moved to Melbourne, but New York this April was full of buzz about the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s movie, which I have written about here and here already, and I certainly think of Banksy as a quintessentially English (or British) artist…

New York was also full of visual reminders of Melbourne, the city that became my adopted home. As I mentioned before, one of them was Meggs’s stickers, which I saw in many places around New York.

I’ve written about Meggs before (see here), and in that entry I was discussing his work in conjunction with that of Anthony Lister, an Australian artist from Brisbane, living in New York these last several years. There are several different consonances between these two in terms of their artistic preoccupations, but in terms of simple coincidence it was amusing that while I was in New York, Anthony Lister was paying a visit to Melbourne, where he had a show at Metro Gallery.

But it’s not as though Lister was entirely gone from New York. His stickers are still very much present on the streets:

And the front of Faile’s studio was adorned with this wonderful Lister painting:

Lister also had a solo show, How to Catch a Time-Traveller, at Lyons Wier Gallery in April, running simultaneously with the Melbourne show.

Meggs and Lister are linked by more than a common nationality; there’s a strong thematic link in their fascination with the superheroes of popular culture, and comics in particular. Both create painted works as well as their own versions of action figures, miniatures and busts. Both Meggs and Lister show superheroes as figures of crisis, barely holding themselves together in the face of unknown assailants or obligations.

But in representing these highly familiar figures away from the context of comics, their methods with paint are very different, however. Meggs uses a combination of stencils and techniques from graffiti art; Lister is evolving a style that recalls Francis Bacon’s way of blurring the painted figure to create a sense both of movement and of the disintegration of the self.

In Lister’s show at Lyons Wier, its title alludes to the idea that these figures are in motion – the artist is the one with the power to stop time, to freeze the disintegrating superhero for an instant, for our scrutiny. Lister’s had a prolific career on the street for a long time, and it’s fantastic to see his painterly skills evolving. Maybe Lister’s thematic will start to broaden a little so that it is no longer simply the superhero which is subject to examination. Charlie Isoe’s current show at Lazarides in London, while containing a lot of works that seemed to me to be somewhat similar, disappointingly, to Lister’s style, showed at least what can be achieved when a wider range of objects are brought into the paintings.

What next, Mr Lister? Can’t wait to see.

Superheroes forever…?

I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes lately. This might sound odd, but they seem to be in the cultural (and political) air at the moment.

Superheroes have featured in recent shows by three artists: Anthony Lister, an artist from Brisbane who now lives and works in Brooklyn; D*Face, one of the mainstays of the London street art scene; and Meggs, based in Melbourne. All of them feature superhero figures in their work – and all of these superheroic figures are in some way twisted, or subverted, or undercut in the way they are depicted by the artists.

Lister has had two shows recently, one at Elms Lesters in London (with WK Interact), and ‘This Won’t Change Anything’ at metro 5 gallery in Melbourne. I only got the briefest glimpse of the Melbourne show, but I think there are some really interesting things going on in his work right now. The figures in his works emerge out of the paint, alluded to rather than rendered in explicit detail.. Colours are sometimes thin, pale or insubstantial, almost gauzy. The combination of these inchoate figures and Lister’s ethereal brushstrokes creates a superhero who is rather less than heroic – a fleeting character rather than one with the definitive qualities of the hero.

In D*Face’s current show ‘Apopcalypse’, at Black Rat Press in London, several works feature superheroes. In one, Batman is shown hanging by the neck from a noose; in another, part of Superman’s face has been replaced by a ghastly skull. These characters, usually associated with strength, invincibility and power, are in this show made problematic. Their presence seems less to do with ‘saving the world’ (as superheroes conventionally do) and more to do with (the evils of) capitalism.

Many of the works in this show take a swipe at the institutions of capitalism (see for example ‘American Depress’, an ‘altered’, expanded replica of the Amex credit card). What then should we make of an image such as Batman hanged by the neck? Is he the victim of a corrupt system? Or is he a part of that corruption? The link between superheroes and capitalism does not, in these strange times, seem at all strained: merchant bankers have previously shown, in their uncritical adoption of Tom Wolfe’s critical epithet ‘masters of the universe’, that they are not averse to viewing themselves as all-powerful superheroes. And I write this entry on a day when I read in the London newspapers that the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is being described as ‘a superhero’ by European financiers for his bailout of the banks. Perhaps the current global financial crisis gives D*Face’s critique of capitalist superheroes an unexpectedly topical edge.

in Meggs’ recent work, the ‘Own Worst Enemy’  show at Dont Come gallery in Melbourne and which can be seen here, there’s no critique of capitalism, but it’s possible to read the works as a critique of powerful masculinity. The images draw heavily on comics and their rendition of the superhero, but rather than depicting singular characters (a ‘Batman’, a ‘Phantom’ and so on), these works feature a figure who is an uncomfortable hybrid of several superheroes. His costume sometimes shows the pointed ears of Batman, sometimes the purple colours of the Phantom, sometimes a winged helmet, sometimes the features of He-Man, and so on. In looking at the figures we recognize each of these as markers of the various superheroes, and thus subscribe to the idea that by means of such markers we can identify them – only to find that the figures resist easy identification, always presenting themselves as uncertain amalgamations and alternatives.

And ‘uncertain’ is a key word here. The figure embodies uncertainty. In a number of images his face grimaces in pain or distress; in others, he cowers away from an unseen threat or attacker. In one series (‘Don’t Know, Don’t Care’), he turns his head away, eyes closed, saying, ‘Don’t…’. The depiction of a superhero in postures of distress, uncertainty, powerlessness or injury radically undercuts the standard associations we have for such figures, converting them from figurs of salvation and rescue, into characters who may need rescue themselves.

Which means that, adapting the classic question ‘who guards the guards’, we should ask, ‘who is there to save a saviour?’. When ‘white knights’ and superheroes are incomplete, corruptible, or vulnerable, it may well be time to reconsider our cultural and political assumption that there will always be someone to rescue us.

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