Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Art and the senses

I’ve been thinking for some time about the ways in which we experience an artwork, whether it’s located in the street or in a gallery. The most conventional way in which to think about this would emphasize vision – after all, we are used to the idea that an artwork is something that we look at.

But this leaves out other sensory dimensions, ones which are not so commonly talked about in relation to art. Is it possible to hear an artwork? Can we taste it?

In some works, image and sound are certainly inextricably combined, so that it’s not really possible to think in terms of simply looking at it or listening to it: Bill Viola’s work is a great example. Some artists entirely ignore the visual in favour of the auditory: in 2008, for example, an artwork called Speed of Sound Nau Interactive Bells was installed in Union Lane in Melbourne (this laneway was mentioned in a previous post, Street art and ‘authority’): the sound of bells, chiming at irregular intervals, played from speakers installed at different heights along the laneway walls, so that the sounds increased and receded according to one’s progress along the laneway.

And I’m also pleased to be able to report that I have had the experience of eating art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-American artist, created installation pieces in which lollies (or candies, or sweets, depending on which continent you live on) were strewn across a gallery floor or piled in its corners. Spectators were able to dip their hands into the artwork and pull out a handful of sweets to take home or to eat. You can get a sense of what Gonzalez-Torres’s wonderful work looks like if you click here – the tiny golden objects piled against the walls constitute one of his works, Untitled (Placebo – Landscape for Roni). I can still vividly recall how transgressive it felt, to pick up a piece of an artwork and put it in my mouth and taste it (it was lemon-flavoured, in case anyone is interested).

The spectator’s relationship to that particular artwork involved touch as well as taste: touching art is definitely something that is actively prohibited by most museums and galleries as illicit behaviour in relation to art: think of all those signs on the wall, saying ‘Do Not Touch’.

One of the most memorable instances in which I was able to touch an artwork certainly had a sense of the illicit about it. I was visiting a gallery overseas to chat with its director, and was informed by him that he had just received a shipment of works by one artist who would be featured in their next show. The director was hugely enthusiastic about this artist and invited me not just to look at the works but in fact to touch one. As I ran my fingertips over a tiny section of the work’s surface, I felt acutely aware of how forbidden such an act usually is.

In addition to the simple transgressive pleasure that came from touching a painting, I also felt a strong sense of how much my relation to the image was altered by the act of touching it: instead of standing facing it, as it would hang on a wall with me looking directly at it, it was brought towards me and held close to me, lying at an angle, slightly tilted from the horizontal, the light slanting off its surface, my gaze directed downwards, and my hand drawn towards it. Much later, I realized that part of the extraordinary charge that arose for me in this moment derived from the experience of relating, momentarily, to the artwork as if I was in the position of the artist. I don’t mean that I experienced a sense of acquiring any of the artist’s skills or abilities, but rather simply some of the privileges that come with the position of the work’s creator: the ability to touch it, the ability to stand close to it (rather than behind a white line in a museum), the ability to look at it from different angles.

(Of course, anyone who buys an artwork acquires the rights and power to do all these things too, but it’s interesting that it is the artist that was evoked by my altered position in relation to this work, not someone with sufficient financial resources to purchase it.)

What about smell? Does art have an aroma, an odour? Artists themselves are usually well acquainted with the olfactory dimensions of their work (from spray paint, oils, acetone, lacquer, glue, and many other substances) but it’s something that isn’t often discussed when we think about spectatorship. And yet those smells can have a powerful affective impact on the viewing of an artwork. When I went to see an exhibition by the wonderful Jose Parla at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London last October, many of the works on display were recently painted: as a result, the gallery rooms were filled with a perfume of oil and varnish, which made me, as a spectator, feel extremely conscious of the works as things which had been brought into being through the artist’s exertions with canvas, and paper, and paint.

It was on the same visit to London that I had the good fortune to meet the charming Nick Walker (you can see more about Nick here). As we finished our conversation about his work, in a small room at Black Rat Press, Nick indicated a neat pile of prints sitting on a trestle table, awaiting his signature before sale. He removed the protective cardboard from the pile, so that I could see the image below. But when the cardboard was lifted, an amazing smell drifted from the pile of prints: it was an intense, concentrated smell of paper, and it was strangely beautiful. I’ll never forget standing next to that table, under a low-hanging spotlight, gazing at these prints and inhaling their smell – a potent reminder that artworks are utterly material, not ethereal images floating free of the world of things.

Much of what I’ve been describing relates to the phenomenon of gallery or museum display, in which the smell or feel of an artwork is rarely encountered. When an artwork exists in urban space, the commonplace prohibitions of gallery spectatorship usually don’t apply – if you can reach it, you are perfectly free to run your hands over a paste-up, or, if you wanted to, there’s even nothing to stop you having a good sniff of a stencil.

That freedom is definitely an important part of how we look at street art and the sense of democratic spectatorship that often attaches to it. But this freedom of access comes with a downside, of course, as the artists belonging to the AMF crew from Sydney discovered, when they were arrested painting trains in London last year. The six guys have been given prison sentences ranging from 8 to 16 months (click here for more details about the case). How did they get caught? Police officers said they were alerted to the artists’ presence by hearing the rattle of spray cans and smelling aerosol paint. When it comes to art, our senses may lead us to an encounter with the sublime, but they can also be the means through which the force of law comes to be exercised.

Street Art and the Museum Revisited: Banksy on the Inside*

In November last year, I wrote about the exhibition, Street Art, at the Tate Modern in London. Artworks by street artists have been exhibited in commercial galleries on and off for many years, but this was the first time that a museum had showcased work by urban artists such as Blu, Nunca and Faile. After visiting the exhibition, I wrote about how I felt disappointed that the Tate had confined its exhibition of the works to the outer façade of the building. Although this provided the selected artists with a massive ‘canvas’ to work on, it also meant that when the exhibition ended, the works were buffed by the museum just as a council would buff these  works if they appeared on walls around a city.

Less than a year after the exhibition on the walls of the Tate Modern, street art has been brought into a museum space, and to an extent that I think it’s fair to say could not have been predicted. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery has just opened its summer exhibition, Banksy versus Bristol Museum.

The title of the show acknowledges the tension that exists when street art is displayed indoors, or when works that some might say are best viewed in passing, on a street wall, are instead placed inside the rarefied space of a gallery. The exhibition’s context is implied as a contest, a struggle between Banksy, artist of and for the people, and all that is represented by a council-funded, conventional museum (and remember that Banksy once painted ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of Tate Britain, in a nose-thumbing gesture at the hierarchies of art institutions).

To a certain extent that is all true: much ink has been spilt and many blog entries posted about whether street art ‘belongs’ indoors, and whether Banksy has ‘sold out’, and whether museums are being forced to ‘dumb down’ (for example, in the critical reactions to the New York Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit’, or to the increasing tendency for bankable ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions on ‘safe’ topics such as ‘Impressionism’ to tour from museum to museum). No doubt some will make similar criticisms here of Banksy, the show, and the museum. (And there’s some worthwhile critical comment on the Indoor Street Art blog.)

But what’s left out of these criticisms is any acknowledgement of the value in staging an exhibition such as this – in bringing Banksy’s work not just ‘home’ to Bristol, but inside one of Bristol’s museums.

Banksy’s work has been in museums before, but in a very different way: in March 2005 he visited the Metropolitan Musuem, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York City and hung works on the walls, which were viewed by the museum’s visitors until noticed by security guards. In October 2003 he hung his own artwork in the Tate Britain and placed a fake piece of prehistoric rock art (showing a cave man pushing a supermarket shopping trolley) in the British Museum in May 2005.

It’s a long way from those outlaw actions to the current exhibition, and here’s where the show’s title, Banksy versus the Museum, is both accurate and misleading. Rather than being displayed in selected series of rooms, as would be the norm, these artworks have taken over the entire space of the Edwardian building. The show features not just sculptures and paintings, but also a series of large installations, including a recreation of the pet store set up in New York City last October.You can get a sense of what the show is like from the videos on the UK Street Art website, or have a look at this:

And so it really is as if Banksy has taken on and taken over the space of the museum – if there was a contest, then he is the victor. But of course what we are actually seeing is the product of a fantastic collaboration rather than a contest: a closely guarded secret, in which the museum closed down in order to allow the artist to set up his work throughout the galleries.

And so, in coming not just home but also inside the portals of the museum, does this mean Banksy has sold out in some way? I think not: the exhibition has actually been brought about in a manner that maintains many of the values of street art: while these are obviously not illicit artworks in any way, they have appeared before the public just as a work on a wall might do, the result of clandestine preparations and the efforts of an anonymous (well, sort of anonymous) individual. Just as the Cans Festival came as a fabulous surprise last year, the Bristol City Museum show provides a summer treat for those in the northern hemisphere. Not to be missed. Bristol? Wish I was there.

* Thanks to Peter, for suggesting the sub-title for this post.

Women and Cities: Swoon

Twitter is emerging as another way of getting information about urban art and street artists (I’m on Twitter as @scotinoz), and it was through Twitter that I learned today that Swoon’s Swimming Cities of Serenissima has arrived in Venice. For those of you who don’t know Swoon’s work, she specializes in large (life-sized) block-printed paper cut-outs, which are then wheat-pasted onto surfaces, which might be the walls in a gallery or in the street. She is based in New York City, but her work appears in cities all over the world. Here’s a great video of Swoon giving a presentation about her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York:

While walking through Haight Ashbury with Russell Howze, veteran archivist of stencil art, I saw this piece by her:

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It’s a quintessential Swoon piece: a woman, rendered in intricate detail, beautifully drawn, and placed with care in a space in which she appears to be glimpsed by the passer-by while she is engaged in some quotidian activity.

While I was in San Francisco, Russell also took me to the Luggage Store Gallery. This gallery has featured in an earlier post on this blog  (see ‘On tagging’, January 2009), and the gallery is certainly worth visiting just for a look at the archive of tags provided by its stairwell, but on the day that I was there it was also the site of an exhibition of Swoon’s work.

Instead of simply being pasted onto walls, as happens when Swoon (or any other artist) puts up work in the streets, here she had pasted them onto cardboard or wood, or other found objects, which were then displayed in a manner which lent them depth, perspective, dimensionality. These photos will give you an idea of what the works looked like:

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Swoon had made use of all the space available, even extending her work over the gallery’s windows:

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For the spectator, this provided the novel experience of standing inside and looking through an artwork to the street outside (a neat re-working of the constraints enforced on much urban art, in which the artwork can exist either in the street or in the gallery, but not in both places).

While one strand of Swoon’s work focuses on figures in the everyday, The Swimming Cities of Serenissima derives from what is emerging as another major interest, the built environment. As the website for The Swimming Cities of Serenissima states, the vessels are inspired by ‘dense urban cityscapes and thickly intertwined mangrove swamps from [Swoon’s] Florida youth’. It involves three vessels, ‘built from salvaged materials, including modified Mercedes car motors with long-tail propellers’, which have been sailed by a crew of 30 artists from Slovenia to Venice. The vessels resemble ships but also evoke the floating skyscrapers of Gotham or the counter-intuitive wonders of Venice itself.

This is the third floating sculpture made by Swoon (previously, she created the Miss Rockaway Armada which sailed down the Mississippi River, and The Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, seven rafts which sailed from Troy, NY, to New York City). Reading about the remarkable floating cities created by Swoon made me remember another highlight from my visit to San Francisco, visiting CELLspace. This is a fantastic place combining studios and gallery space for at-risk youth and artists in the Mission District, to see Card Burg, a city being constructed from cardboard:

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It was absolutely wonderful to wander among the towering skyscrapers and to see the small spaces of everyday lives within the metropolis – an incredible urban artwork about the nature of life in urban space.

I’m pretty sure that for anyone lucky enough to see one of Swoon’s swimming cities, the experience will be similar: wonder, awe and sheer pleasure. But I’ve also been thinking about these two separate strands in Swoon’s work: the individual and the urban. Individuals going about their business, sitting on the stoop, walking through the city. And cities: fantastic, miraculous spaces wrought by the imagination. It makes me wonder whether it’s possible for the two to be brought together: if the contemplative woman can be allowed to exist within the urban setting.

Of course, you could argue that this is exactly what Swoon’s street images do: the paste-up of a woman is placed in urban space. But I wonder if we need more than that. When I saw Card Burg, I realised that part of the pleasure in visiting that imaginary city was brought about by the exhilaration of – literally – walking tall among the city’s buildings. The altered dimensions of Card Burg meant that I stood almost as tall as the skyscrapers.

Similarly, Swoon’s swimming cities shift perspective and dimension: the city is produced in inevitable miniature, and is thus, somehow, tamed. To me, what’s important here is the transformation that’s brought about of the experience of being a woman in the city. For far too many women, city spaces are still the location for sensations such as anxiety, fear, intimidation. Is it possible for an artist to create an image of being a woman in the city that can acknowledge that reality and that can still seem beautiful? This isn’t a criticism of Swoon’s work, which I find inspiring and hopeful and lovely. But it’s important to note how difficult it is for art to do justice to the fact that, for many women, ‘walking tall’ in the city is fraught with risk as much as pleasure.