Archive for October, 2008|Monthly archive page

Nesting and dying….

Miso and Ghostpatrol, as many of you reading this blog will know, are two artists living and working in Melbourne, and making images both on and off the street. They’re two of the most interesting artists in this city, for a whole range of reasons. For one thing, although they each work as solo artists, they also work together – and their collaborations reach the kind of intense symbiosis that I mentioned in an earlier post (‘Criminal damage?’).

If you are interested in seeing something of their work in a gallery context, they have a show on until 7 November 2008, at metro 5 gallery. The show is called ‘Nesting and Dying’, and in that title you can see some of Miso and Ghostpatrol’s preoccupations: the tension between life and death, the beauty that exists in both, and the need to represent both.

One thing that’s striking about the show is its creation of a distinctive world. The artists have installed the artworks along with a series of objects and contextual items so that the space not longer feels like just a gallery, but suggests itself as something else as well. As for what that ‘something else’ is, there is a lot of ambiguity. There are shelves with objects placed on them; there are stuffed animals in the midst of the floor. It’s hard to say what kind of place is being evoked – someone’s home? a scene from a fairytale? a fantasy?

The artworks themselves are fascinating. There are works by each individual artist. Ghostpatrol has created a number of images made by drawing on pencils. That’s not drawing with pencils, but drawing on pencils. The side of each pencil contains a fragment of a larger image; when the pencils are laid side by side, the fragments create the overall image. The result is something small (only the sum of several pencils, after all), but it represents itself as larger than its components… And it is an image made from the tools used to create images – a wonderful demonstration of reflexivity in an artwork. Along with these there are some lovely drawings, containing many of the figures characteristic of Ghostpatrol’s work. a person, a rabbit, a knife. Small figures in a forest. All drawn with great precision, all extremely appealing, yet at the same time slightly odd, slightly out of kilter.

And Miso’s work – well, there are some lovely, lovely images. I stood for a long time in front of one, a large piece on wooden board, which depicts a female figure – it’s shown on the gallery website, if you would like to take a look. The work contains so many different elements – cut out paper pasted onto the wood, a sketched drawing of part of the figure, decorative textures that suggest the figure’s clothing and which also flow into the wooden backdrop. Something in this image really resonated with me – perhaps it’s because the female figure seems to be both emerging out of and receding into the background. It’s technqiue like this that explains why Miso’s paste-ups can work so well on the street – the figures look both to be an integral part of the setting in which they appear and also separate enough from it to generate a fleeting conversation with it.

In addition to their solo works, the artists have created some images together. These are interesting because one can still see the ‘hand’ of each individual artist at work within them, while the two distinctive styles mesh together really well. And overall, it is fascinating to try and think through how and why their styles, even within the exhibition as a whole, produce this gorgeously resonant collaboration. There’s a shared palette of colours (browns, grey, black, bone), for one thing, and an interest in textures (wood, paper, stone). But more than this, there’s a strong sense of a shared sensibility of the image. In trying to capture what this is, I can’t do any better than quote the words of my partner, who came to the show with me. Looking around the gallery, he said that it was as if the works were illustrations in a book of fairytales in which the stories had not yet been written. And that’s it: these strange, evocative, heartfelt, uncanny images make visible for us – momentarily – the unwritten stories that animate them.

A moment of maternal pride…

On Saturday I was walking down Brunswick Street in Fitzroy with my daughter, when I spotted one of Miso and Ghostpatrol’s paste-ups – one of the ones depicting themselves in fox masks. The image was pasted up on the side of an airconditioner, positioned high outside a hairdresser’s.

Here’s a close-up of the work:

I said to my daughter, ‘Look – up there! Do you see what’s stuck up there?’ My daughter, in a very matter of fact voice, said, ‘Yes, yes, it’s by Miso and Ghostpatrol.’

In the midst of my embarassment at not realising how well-developed her awareness of street art is becoming, I felt a huge sense of delight and pride – both in her ability to recognize the artists who had made this artwork, and in her growing up with an interest in and appreciation of art in the street as well as in galleries and museums.

Mind you, knowing what happens when ‘teenage rebellion’ kicks in, she’ll probably join RAGE or something when she grows up. (Hope not!) But for now – all good!

What Banksy did next….

Banksy is the most famous street artist in the world at present – he is a household name in Britain and an inspiration to many artists. He’s a celebrity figure, with his work selling for huge sums of money, and there’s also something of a secondary Banksy industry completely separate to the artist himself (and, it has to be said, exploiting his fame): for example, Banksy birthday cards, Banksy T-Shirts, and prints of digital photos of his works are sold at dozens of shops and market stalls around London.

His own publications (such as Wall and Piece) have sold in massive numbers and his website (here) has got to be one of the most visited street art sites on the net. He organised and funded the Cans Festivals (which I have written about in this blog already) – a massively generous gesture which put the work of street artists and graffiti artists from around the world on display in a disused tunnel in London.

His own work is distinguished by some very recognizable characteristics and motifs – rats, the balloon girl, the Tesco supermarket bag, a certain mockery of the police (for example, his ‘snorting copper’, hoovering up a massive line of cocaine as he kneels on the ground) and a facility for snappy slogans (for example, ‘One Nation Under CCTV’).

And just when you might have been thinking that his work had settled into a format so recognizable that it might almost be in danger of becoming a brand, Banksy has managed to surprise everyone again, by staging what is simultaneously an artwork, an installataion and an event, in New York City.

The Banksy Village Pet Store & Charcoal Grill is situated in a former shopfront, displaying in cages what looks at first glance like animals, as you would expect in any pet shop. Closer inspection reveals mutant creatures, fast food items behaving like animals, and animals in contexts designed to provoke discomfort in the spectator about the uses we make of animals, such as testing cosmetics upon animals such as rabbits, or turning animals into hot dogs and burgers (the very title of the work shows Banksy’s interest in interrogating the link between a pet store, which is about our desire to domesticate animals as our pets, and a restaurant, which is about our desire to flame-grill them on hot coals and eat the result).

Many people have responded to this work with delight, but also with surprise, as if it’s a huge departure for Banksy. And in some ways it is – it’s a long way from a stencil on a wall to a moving hot dog in a display case. But it’s also worth recalling Banksy’s painted, living elephant, displayed in Los Angeles – an artwork constructed to undercut the well-worn phrase, ‘the elephant in the room’ (check it out here). That piece showed Banksy’s interest in the moving image (not cinema, but the image that literally moves). And perhaps since that work attracted some criticism (people asked if it was cruel to paint the elephant), in Banksy’s Village Pet Store & Charcoal Grill the creatures are animatronic creations, and far more uncanny as a result.

For those of you lucky enough to be in or near New York City, you can see these creatures ‘in the flesh’, as it were. Those of us elsewhere will have to make do with watching the many videos uploaded onto YouTube. Enjoy!

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.

Criminal damage?

To come to public space with almost nothing, but to leave a monument.

Brad Downey

The American artist Brad Downey has often worked with collaborators – he is well known as half of Darius and Downey, who produced hundreds of works around both New York City and London as documented in a book, The Adventures of Darius and Downey, and a film, Public Discourse. (More information about both is available from Downey’s website here.)

(And in both the book and the film it’s clear that this ‘collaboration’ was in fact extremely competitive – quite unlike the kind of mystical collaboration achieved by, say, Gilbert & George, or Marina Abramovic and Ulay. In those instances one artist seems to melt into the other, creating a kind of ‘third hand’, as Charles Green calls it, which transcends the two individual artists’ own hands.)

Public Discourse shows that instead of any mystical union between Darius and Downey, a separateness constituted a strong element in their collaboration. And indeed Darius and Downey no longer work together, although both are currently based in Berlin.

Downey’s current solo work still involves working with others – this time someone who films the ‘spontaneous sculptures’ he creates in city spaces. This July, I was in the audience at the Tate Modern, when Downey presented six short films of recent work. For a piece called ‘Ladder Stick Up’, which was carried out while he was in Aberdeen, exhibiting work at Peacock Visual Arts, Downey found a building which was undergoing construction work, its outer wall covered with scaffolding under red plastic sheeting.

The film shows Downey approaching the building, carrying only a small bag. He disappears behind the sheeting, and we watch, as for a time nothing seems to happen. Then it becomes clear that Downey is standing on the scaffolding, cutting into the plastic sheeting from behind it, as a hole appears and expands into a line which stretches diagonally upwards through the sheeting. (As he showed the film, Downey commented that the small knife he used ‘cut through the architecture like it was butter’.)

Downey cuts the line as far as he can reach on one level of the scaffolding, and then climbs to the next level where the cutting begins anew. This goes on for several levels of scaffolding, and we can see on the screen that a progressively larger shape is being cut in the sheeting.

It gradually becomes apparent that Downey is cutting the shape of a heart into the sheeting, and, finally, high above the street, he cuts the last piece of sheeting holding an enormous red plastic heart in place. As the heart slowly fell out of the sheeting and billowed to the ground in a heap, I heard myself gasp, and I can’t believe I would have been the only person in the audience watching this film to do so.

After the heart had fallen to the ground, the grey granite of the building and its metal scaffolding were starkly revealed in the heart-shaped gap. (If you’d like to see what the result looked like, click here.) It seemed both a shocking architectural anatomy lesson and a sublimely beautiful performance – a spontaneous sculpture indeed, created from material that we are not supposed to notice, such as the temporary structures of plastic and scaffolds.

Downey said his aim was to do ‘a huge piece of damage’, but to make it friendly and happy through the use of an image (the heart) that everyone knows. Was it ‘damage’? The building owner thought so: Downey was arrested when he climbed back to the ground (the owner had called the police while he was working), and was fined 2000 pounds (which, fortunately for him, was paid by Peacock Visual Arts). What was ‘damaged’? Plastic sheeting (which cost someone money, I guess, and which probably had to be replaced).

But this sculpture demonstrates how fluid is the nature of ‘damage’. Downey created something which was both a performance in itself and which left behind a perfectly ephemeral piece of street art – one which looked astounding (the juxtaposition of heart shape and the now revealed innards of stone and scaffolding), which had the appeal of cuteness (like a valentine card to the city), and yet which came into being through the violence of cutting and discarding.

All in the moment

The other night, I was taking the underground back to where I’m staying in London, sitting on a Northern Line train with a friend. Just across from me was a young guy, and after a little while, he reached into his bag and pulled out… a sticker. Very calmly, he peeled off its backing, turned, and fixed it to the wall of the carriage, just behind his head. Although he did this in one fluid, and swift, movement, the sticker was perfectly lined up on the wall – it wasn’t squint, it sat exactly midway between the window frame and the glass divider before the exit door. It mirrored, at the other end of the carriage, a sticker placed there by the London Underground, about giving up your seat for others. In short, it looked official.

But this sticker read:

‘Peak Hours

may necessitate that

you let other people

sit on your lap.’

The blue wasn’t quite the same shade of blue as that used in the ‘real’ notices, but the font of the white printed text was exactly right – as was the slightly pompous wording. I’ve noticed that public notices here often have a rather more formal tone than the notices we see in Australia. The ‘real’ sticker at the other end of the carriage, for example, read: ‘Priority seat. For people who are disabled, pregnant, or less able to stand’. ‘Less able to stand’: I love that. How much less able does one have to be in order to claim the right to a priority seat? If I’m feeling footsore after walking around photographing street art, am I ‘less able to stand’?

But my favourite pompous sign is in the building I’m staying in, outside the lift. It directs the reader: ‘In case of emergency, firstly call the caretaker. Secondly, call the lift engineers. Thirdly, if the engineers cannot respond quickly, call the Fire Brigade’. I love that firstly, secondly, thirdly… The grammatical precision, the conditional clauses. Just perfect.

And this guy’s sticker seemed to have caught that exactly: ‘peak hours may necessitate that someone sits in your lap’. The juxtaposition of ‘necessitate’ and ‘lap’ – so unexpected, so funny.

What a great thing to have made, and to have seen – a sticker that will travel around the London Underground, and which will catch the eye of some commuters and not others, simply sitting on the wall of the carriage. And for those who notice it, inevitably a smile will be brought to their faces, and some of the pain of the moment – the pain of peak hours – will disappear.

Losing the image

I’m in London right now, and yesterday I went to Shoreditch, to meet with a gallerist. The area is filled with street art, so, after the meeting I went walking, to see what was on the walls. I had spent a day doing this when I was visiting in July, and had come across some fantastic images.

I thought I would revisit one of these, a work by the French artist C215. It’s the image I used to accompany the very first post on this blog (see ‘inaugurations’). It was a diptych, portraits of two children, each one filling a small tiled panel low down on the outside of a pub. I had come across it by accident, in the way that sometimes happens, and which makes the artwork really feel like a gift. The pub was on Leonard Street, and a tiny side street connected Leonard Street to Willow Street. Walking down this side street, I had suddenly seen this image, quietly and perfectly placed close to the ground.

Yesterday, I walked purposefully to find it, almost as if I wanted to say hello to an old friend. But it was gone.

The tiled panels had been buffed – whether by the council or by the pub’s owners, I don’t know.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of loss I experienced in seeing it had gone. It was much more than a momentary flicker of disappointment, much more than any sense of annoyance at my objective being thwarted by circumstances. I actually felt quite disoriented by its absence – I found myself looking around, as though to check whether the image might have migrated somewhere else nearby. I felt really, deeply, saddened by its disappearance, and it’s a feeling that resurfaces now, when I think about those blank panels.

I’m not sure why. Images on the street come and go, right? It’s meant to be ephemeral. I know all that. But clearly I had become attached to that image – maybe because I admire C215’s work generally, maybe because that particular image seemed so perfectly placed. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched a really excellent video on YouTube (by romanywg) which shows C215 putting his work up in London, probably at the time he did this image:

Maybe it’s because when I came across it back in July it had that fantastic sense of being a gift from the artist to the passerby, to the spectator – to the city.

At any rate, it’s gone, and I feel its loss. I photographed its absence, and here is what that looks like:

Images appear and images disappear. Their disappearance says something about time, and its passing. The way we respond to the loss of an image on a wall says something about how we see street art itself – do we celebrate the empty space, as the opponents of graffiti and street art do? Do we plan the next image for that empty space, as an artist might do? Do we mourn the loss of an image?