Street art and the museum

In the northern summer of 2008, from 23 May to 25 August, the Tate Modern art gallery in London hosted an exhibition called Street Art, curated by Cedar Lewisohn. The exhibition involved the installation of works by six artists on the front façade of the museum, plus film screenings, a program of talks, a walking tour around the area showcasing works in the street (a further five artists were commissioned to create works especially for the designated sites), and a Street Art Information Tunnel in the museum forecourt, showing short films, providing information, and with a tagging wall (textas and marker pens provided). There’s information about the exhibition and the artists in the Tate’s archive here. Lewisohn also produced a book on street art, which constitutes an extremely interesting account, contextualising street art in a broader way than many other commentators – see here for more details of the book.

The artists who were selected to exhibit on the Tate’s massive outer wall were: os gemeos (Brazil), Blu (Italy), Faile (the United States), Nunca (Brazil), JR (France), and Sixeart (Spain). The artists who exhibited works for the walking tour were 3TTMan, Spok, Nano 4814, El Tono and Nurla.

For all its several component parts, the most significant part of the exhibition was certainly the outer wall, featuring the works by the six international artists. These works were massive, as befits the size of Tate Modern (a former power station). The six works could be seen from a great distance: many visitors approach the Tate Modern from the north side of the Thames, walking across the elegant Millenium Bridge to the museum. These visitors were treated to an incredible view of the images and were able to watch them increase in size with each step across the bridge. You can get a sense of this in the image below:

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Once in the museum forecourt, visitors gazed upwards at the outer wall, able to see the detail in each work – especially interesting in the case of the image by Blu. In this first picture, you can see the work as a whole; the second one shows the amazing detail.

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Proximity to each image of course changed the perspective on it: standing beneath each one, the spectator was towered over by each image. Some, like this Faile piece below, were enormously powerful and dominating in appearance.

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Others seemed to incorporate a kind of pathos despite their monumentality – like the yellowing skin and skinny limbs of the os gemeos figure, as you can see here:

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JR’s pasted up image of a young man wielding a video camera was already in peeling tatters (thanks to the rain and wind that you can get in a British summer). On the first day I visited, repair work was being done on the JR image. This actually helps to show the dominating scale of the works, since you can see how small the cherry picker looks next to the photograph:

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And here’s what it looked like a few days later:

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Quick glimpses of the other works:

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It can’t be denied that it was amazing to see such works, and to see them on the wall of as august an institution as the Tate Modern. But I have just a couple of misgivings about the experience….

First of all, the scale of the images. The sheer size of these works (as you can see, they were of course done with the assistance of cherry pickers and so on) almost takes them out of the domain of street art and puts them into the realm of something else. The work is, literally, elevated – raised up off the street, placed high on the façade of the museum. Looking at these huge, amazing works raises the question, ‘what is “street” about ‘street art”?’ Is it work done on the street? If so, then these works would obviously be excluded from that definition. Is it work done with a particular sensibility on the part of the artist? Is it work with a particular ‘look’ to it, a specific aesthetic? Is it some combination of these?

Although all six of the works had the requisite sensibility (all of the artists are well known for their previous work on the streets, legal and illegal), and although all of the works variously participated in the aesthetic that seems to characterise street art (an engagement with pop culture, contemporary politics, an awareness of spatiality, a willingness to manipulate image and genre), it’s also worth considering what happens when ‘street’ art meets the museum.

The debate around the tensions between art that is made for the streets and then exhibited in gallery space is well-rehearsed. But I think that those tensions are multiplied when artworks that are at least in some way related to the space of the streets are then brought into the realm of the museum.

Small galleries (which is where the majority of street artists exhibit their work, if they exhibit at all) really are, oftentimes, small. Of course, they are driven by lots of imperatives, some of them commercial, some of them about cementing a particular reputation for themselves within the gallery scene. But they are less often trying to make a statement about capturing the artistic zeitgeist, or cataloguing artistic worth, or building representative collections. Museums, on the other hand, are driven by exactly those objectives. That’s one of the reasons why the National Gallery of Australia’s purchase of prints of stencil art by street artists had such political and cultural significance – as a museum, the NGA’s interest in street art lends a kind of institutional validation to street art and the artists (something that is important to remember when governments attempt to pour scorn on the cultural value of street art, as has recently been happening in Melbourne).

So what cultural value is generated by the interest of the Tate Modern in street art? Well, of course, you could say it recognises something that has become hugely important in many British cities (especially London) and something which has become of particular cultural importance to young people. You could say that Lewisohn’s assembling of these particular works demonstrates an outward-looking worldview that see beyond any limited self-image of London as the global centre of street art (in his selection of six non-British artists for the exhibition).

All of these things would be correct. But there’s something else worth thinking about, in this consideration of the cultural value of the Tate’s street art exhibition, and in the encounter between street art and museum space. When I first heard that the Tate was putting on an exhibition about street art, I emailed the museum for information, and in their response, I found it very interesting that they said: ‘there is no work in the building, only on the front and in the area’.

This comment was made as part of a helpful and detailed email from the Information Department, and I initially didn’t give it much thought. But after going to the Tate and looking at the façade, and doing the walking tour, and visiting the ‘Information Tunnel’, I was struck by the fact that the ‘street art’ stayed outside the museum. And then struck again, weeks later, when I heard that the works on the outer wall had been removed when the exhibition ended in August.

Ephemerality as part of street art – a recurrent theme in the writings on this blog, and of course a key part of street art culture. But ephemerality is what we expect (and accept) when works are on the street. When they are part of a museum exhibition, why can’t the works be permitted to stick around? No-one, of course, is going to go over or tag works on the front of the Tate Modern (given that cherry pickers were needed to install the images, it seems hard to imagine other artists seriously being able to have much impact on any of these even if they wanted to). But it turns out that the museum can buff the works. The outer wall now looks the same as it ever was…

Since no works made it inside the museum as part of the exhibition, and since the outside has now been returned to its ‘normal’ appearance, there’s little evidence that the Tate ever had an exhibition showcasing street art (except for the items for sale in the gift shop). And that seems – well, ‘wrong’ is too strong a word for it. But think about it: if the Tate Modern bought an artwork by Warhol or by Rothko and then, after a few months, destroyed it… wouldn’t that seem strange? Those works by Blu, Faile, os gemeos and the others were fantastic and wonderful, and are now gone. That the museum played a part in their disappearance somehow feels disappointing to me.

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