Archive for the ‘stencil art’ Tag

An old favourite

I arrived in Paris last Thursday night, with just enough time to get to the opening of a new show by Miss.Tic. Miss.Tic is something of a cultural (and countercultural institution) in Paris. She has been making stencils and putting them up for many, many years – probably about two and a half decades.

Her works are tremendously recognizable, because they always feature the same devices: a woman, or a woman and a man together, occasionally a cat or a woman and a cat. The images have a nicely stark, graphic appeal, and accompany a brief line of text. The text, for Miss.Tic, is the crucial thing: she describes herself as a ‘poet’ rather than an artist. the words are carefully chosen, and play on language, using puns, double meanings, and subtle satire. The text often has a feminist overtone, which is then placed in tension with the illustrating image, in that the woman in the picture often assumes poses that are stereotypically provocative. For many years, the woman in the images was a representation of Miss.Tic herself; in later years, she has created a generic female, who appears with a stereotypically ‘beefcake’ male.

Her work is now regarded very highly in French art circles. The show was held in the Galerie Lelia Mordoch, in a very trendy part of Paris. The opening was filled with chic Parisiens, all clutching plastic cups of white wine or Evian, and all desperate to speak to the artist.

When I was in Paris two years ago, Miss.Tic was kind enough to do an interview with me, so I felt brave enough to go up and say hello. She appeared to remember me (‘Ah oui, la petite Australienne’) but there were certainly too many people around to have any kind of conversation. Here are a couple of examples of her work, one inside the gallery and one in the street nearby:

(Sorry for the slightly dubious photographic quality – it was very unclear whether it was OK to take pictures so I was being very hasty, and it’s not the best framed shot.)

Every now and then in Paris, especially in certain areas like La Butte aux Cailles, it’s possible to come across street-based works by Miss.Tic. These are a great pleasure; they seem much more raw than the gallery works (which, by the way, have rather large price tags – many of the works in the current show are priced between 8000 and 14000 euros). Here’s one I saw yesterday:

And here’s one on a gallery door (Le Cabinet D’Amateur, near Ledru Rollin):

And just in case you thought, when I said that Miss.Tic is something of a cultural institution in France, that this was just a figure of speech, check this out:

Miss.Tic’s work has been immortalised on a set of stamps, an indicator that a previously minoritarian activity is becoming increasingly mainstream. But aside from that, I love it. She’s on a set of stamps! How cool is that?

Refiguring the Walls of Paris

Street art and graffiti, when spoken about by those who don’t enjoy the experience of discovering unauthorised art in city spaces, are sometimes said to deface the walls of the streets in which they are found. Calling it ‘defacement’ is a way of saying ‘damage to property’, of course, but interestingly, when street art’s detractors want to focus on the question of purely physical damage to property, they usually use the term ‘vandalism’. So the term ‘defacement’ seems to speak to something else, as though the walls of the city have an outward face, which has been altered, spoiled, or even destroyed by the artwork – literally de-faced. (There’ an excellent book on the concept of defacement by Michael Taussig, if you are interested in thinking more along these lines…)

Thinking of city walls in this way sounds odd, until we start thinking of how we are quite accustomed to speaking of the facade of a building, for example; both ‘facade’ and ‘face’ share the same root, from facia (face) in Latin.

On my way home from Paris to Melbourne, I was thinking about the term ‘defacement’ and how it gets used as a negative descriptor of street art and graffiti (well, it’s a long, long flight, you have many hours in which to ponder these things). If walls have faces that can be ‘damaged’, then that sets the street artwork up as operating as a form of disfigurement.

[If you don’t look at street art as a form of disfigurement, then of course the addition of artworks to the city walls by its artists can be construed in many, positive lights (as written about in previous posts on this blog): as a gift, as a contribution to the community, as a means of beautification of drab spaces, as a form of communication between the artist and other members of the community, and as a means of celebrating the city itself.]

It seemed particularly fitting to me to think through the idea of street art and graffiti as a form of defacement and disfigurement after having spent two weeks in Paris this May. I spent hours walking through the streets and saw some amazing and inspiring work. One of the things that was striking about it is the preponderance of figurative work: there are hundreds of portraits by dozens of artists adorning the walls of Paris, and here is a selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most.

Here’s a section of a large work by the Vancouver-based artist Indigo:

One of the curving black figures created by FKDL:

A beautifully placed image by C215:

The incomparable Miss.Tic, making stencils since the mid-1980s:

Two works, dancing together. The corps blanc, or white figure, is by Jerome Mesnager, the female figure is by Jef Aerosol, both also veterans of the French scene:

And here is one of Nemo’s typically segmented scenes, in which a dark silhouetted figure tumbles through various scenes against a backdrop of sandstone:

As a graduate student, much of my time was spent reading the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (and since becoming an academic, a lot of my time is spent teaching his work too), so it was a great pleasure to come across his face on a number of walls, placed there by the stencil artist PITR:

And I was fortunate enough to catch some freshly painted stencil works by Jana und JS, stunning in their photorealistic detail:

Finally, a slightly different kind of portrait, that of the grinning yellow cat made famous by Monsieur Chat. These cats apparently bound across many of Paris’s rooftops, but I caught sight of only one. You can just see its Cheshire-cat happiness high above the street, beaming down at the passers-by:

It’s easy to find this kind of street art appealing: well-executed images in bright colours, skillfully applied in well thought-out spaces. What’s not to like? Who could call these images a disfigurement of the walls? But I think that what I saw in Paris was more than just a negation of the criticism of street art’s detractors. And so I’ll say this: instead of simply being not-disfigurements, these works actively re-figure the streets of Paris, opening for the passer-by moments of narrative and instances of beauty where previously none had existed.

Banksy at the movies: Part II (Banksy’s hands)

Since the previous post, about expectations of what Exit Through the Gift Shop is about, turned out to be a long one, I thought I’d write a separate one dealing with what it’s not about.

So let’s go back to the second response that a lot of people seemed to have after seeing the movie – a feeling of surprise that it’s not ‘about’ Banksy, or at least not as much as they had expected.

It’s worth looking at this closely. Is the film ‘about’ Banksy? Well, the film is made by him, and thus it provides us with a text which tells us something about the artists and his concerns, just as his artworks, books and exhibitions do.

And then again, Banksy is in the movie: we see him in his studio; we see him stencilling; we see him with his crew of helpers creating the famous ‘vandalized telephone box’ in London (which goes on to sell for an extraordinary sum at auction); we see him installing a blow-up doll, hooded, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit, at Disneyland, in a direct juxtaposition of American mass entertainment culture with the torture of detainees at Guantanamo.  (All of these occurrences are filmed by Guetta.)

But of course, while all of these events are taking place, Banksy still withholds himself from any kind of identifying gaze – he wears the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, his face is blanked by pixillation, his voice distorted (and his assistants’ identities are similarly masked).

So Banksy’s certainly in the movie, but he’s simultaneously on display and hidden from our view. But what we do see in plain sight are his stencils and his hands: as Banksy himself states in the film, ‘I told Thierry he could film my hands but only from behind’.

As he says these words in voice-over, the film shows us Banksy at work, cutting stencils (for one of his signature rats, to be put up on a wall in LA). And for me, that was one of the highlights of the film – watching those hands, whether at work on the stencil or gesturing along with the words spoken by Banksy’s distorted voice.

They’re slender hands, with long fingers. They’re the hands of an artist. What does the face matter, or the voice? Watch the film – and watch out for the scene of Banksy cutting stencils, with speed, and with great skill. That moment might not be central to the film, but it’s certainly what street art is all about.

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):

img_0389

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…

ftzbanksysten

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):

cargo-2-cu

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.

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