Archive for the ‘art’ Category

The League of Resonance

Every city has areas that have acquired the reputation for being a ‘trouble spot’. Sometimes this comes about through an increase in the numbers of crimes occurring, or perhaps it’s the result of bad road design so that an intersection becomes an accident black spot. Sometimes it’s because an area isn’t terribly lovely to look at: perhaps the architecture is uninspiring or dull, or perhaps the area gets filled with unlovely things like litter, debris, waste bins, and the like. Perhaps it’s an area that people tend to walk through without seeming to engage with the space – most cities have area which lead into major transport hubs, with crowds flowing in and out of train stations, around tram or bus stops, down major roads, and so on.

And sometimes you get an area that combines all of the above. When that happens, the site is often seen as a real ‘problem’ area.

One of these problem sites exists in the centre of Melbourne: an area covering a couple of blocks around the intersection of Flinders Street and Elizabeth Street. The City of Melbourne is canvassing opinion about the area, from residents, traders, commuters and so on, and one might expect that a council would simply carry out a letter box survey and then have a few committee meetings with relevant stakeholders to work out what should be done.

Well, all of that may well be going on, but what’s exciting is that the City of Melbourne has also chosen to make one of its Arts and Participation Programs engage with this area. The result is an urban intervention that certainly has the potential to generate interesting information for the council’s deliberations, but which also constitutes urban art in itself.

The City of Melbourne commissioned a group of artists, led by Jason Maling, Sarah Rodigari and Jess Olivieri, in order to find ‘an alternative method for Council to engage with the city night experience and explore diverse experiences and views. The artistic outcomes aim to provide a counterpoint to late night culture, and is designed to activate the space with positivity, romance and humour and to create a softer alternative to an area that is quickly gaining a reputation for the inverse’. The result is an arts project called the League of Resonance.

The League describes its activities as follows:

[We] seek out the intangible and barely perceptible. We detect vibrations that form the backdrop to the mythical narrative of daily life. We situate ourselves in places of intrigue, we listen, we talk, we connect and we hum. In collecting and combining the resonance of individuals: their stories, perceptions and rituals, we unravel the backdrop to this myth. Together we create a new sound. This sound is The League of Resonance.

So what does this all mean? I met two of the League’s founder members, Jason and Jess, and went on a ‘date’ with them to discover the work of the League and to share stories with them about this particular segment of urban space.

We met outside the photo booth at Flinders Street station, on the south side of the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets. Jason and Less explained how the project aimed to take seriously the idea of an area having a ‘bad vibe’ and their desire to investigate all the components of this area’s vibe, to discover where its current vibrations come from. These investigations have been historical, aesthetic, architectural, sociological and ethnographic: they have uncovered information about the precinct’s origins, the buildings that used to be there and have been demolished. They have walked and walked around the area, in different weathers and at different times of the day, trying to pay attention to everything. They have documented the businesses in the area, and have spoken with commuters, residents, the local council, Victoria Police, employees and employers, punters, and students. They have photographed the area and its buildings, and have created a dossier of information about individuals who meet with them and agree to join the League. (League members also receive membership cards.) They produce an occasional newsletter setting out tiny snippets of information and ideas about the area, and have developed a program of ‘good works’, from suggestions by interviewees as to what actions would help people in the area. These have included holding the hand of very drunk people, and assisting people to cross the road at this traffic accident black spot.

Much of these activities and ideas are inspired by the conversations generated when League founders meet with individuals on a ‘date’: which means having a cup of tea or coffee in one of the precinct’s cafés, and walking around the streets and laneways of the area, sharing stories. On my ‘date’ with Jason and Jess, I learned about the tram stop that is being used as an informal shoe exchange (people seem to leave unwanted pairs of shoes in the tram stop which are then used by the homeless) and the embankment that overflows with rats at night.

On a walk that involved many moments of delight, there were two highlights for me. The first involved a panorama. Several floors up, we gazed at what initially looked like a spread of unremarkable modern office buildings. But as Jess and Jason pointed out details of the buildings and told stories about each, the buildings revealed themselves in their singularity: a tall narrow building topped by a private swimming pool, an opulent bank, a backpackers’ hostel, a building used as a depository for pornographic magazines and books. Knowing even these small details about the buildings started to attach histories and emotion to these spaces, making me realise that even the most bland and anonymous buildings are always the products of specific desires and functions, some of which conflict with each other, and all of which participate in the resonance of a neighbourhood.

The other moment of great pleasure involved not a panorama, with its necessary sweep and grandeur, but two tiny details, easy to overlook. As we sheltered in a laneway while it rained, I noticed cigarette butts – not that unusual, since office workers regularly use laneways for smoke breaks. But here’s what struck me:

Two butts are inserted into a tiny space in the wall; others are carefully lined up on a narrow shelf. Granted, they are cigarette butts and thus not terribly lovely to look at, and of course they are environmentally problematic in many ways: they are litter, and you could say that they should be in a bin. But something about their placement arrested me: they hadn’t just been dropped and stamped out on the ground. Instead, they had been inserted or balanced in unexpected places, almost in ways that responded aesthetically to their surroundings.

A few minutes after seeing these butts, the League took me to see another unexpected moment of ad hoc art. In another laneway, this one heavily used by smokers from two nearby office buildings, there is a lot of construction work going on, with hoardings tacked on to the laneway walls. Smokers stand, wreathed in a grey cloud, in gloomy silence between these hoardings. Cigarette butts abound here, of course, and many are just dropped on the ground as one would predict. But take a look at this (apologies for the dodgy quality of these images; they were taken in haste in the rain):

It is a line of chewing gum wads, placed along a ledge on one of the wooden hoardings. It is litter too, of course, just as the carefully placed cigarette butts are. But, like them, its placement indicates something in addition to standard littering. The gradually increasing line of variously coloured balls of gum has become a visual punctuation against the bland beige wood of the hoarding. It may not be sanitary, it may not be complicated; maybe the gum wads should indeed be in a bin. But I couldn’t help taking pleasure in the fact that someone (or several people) made the small aesthetic judgment to line them up rather than drop them randomly on the ground. It’s a small instance of aesthetic intervention in urban space, but a valuable one. And I’m grateful to the League of Resonance for sharing it with me on a date that made me pay attention to the intricacies of an area that could easily be dismissed as valueless, and for dedicating their time and energies over these several weeks to the project of understanding what makes a neighbourhood resonate, vibrate and hum.

Pressing buttons

Some years ago, Marc Augé, a French anthropologist, wrote a book called Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. A ‘non-place’ is somewhere that seems to lack the characteristics that define a place (design, décor, architecture, and so on); instead, a non-place may seem to exist for purely functional reasons that don’t acknowledge a need for places to provide a sense of experience, aesthetics, or sensibility for those who inhabit or pass through them. Non-places famously include motel rooms, waiting-rooms, airport departure lounges, motorway service stations and many more.

I’ve been wondering if we could also say that there exists a ‘non-experience’ as well as a non-place. I’ve been thinking about this since receiving a message from two artists from Barcelona, Pauer and Octopus, who are currently based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They have created a nice art project called Press the Button: the artists have made stickers which are affixed on to the boxes at pedestrian crossings, next to the button that you push when you want to stop traffic so that you can cross the road. (This project, although different in technique and medium, follows in the traditions established by artists such as Roadsworth, and on crosswalk art more generally see this post on Web Urbanist.)

Everyone knows what it feels like: the moment when you push the button at a pedestrian crossing, and then stand there, waiting, waiting, waiting for the lights to change so that you can cross the street. It seems to me that this might be a quintessential non-experience; while waiting for the crossing to activate, the pedestrian really is quite suspended, doing nothing. A similar one might be sitting in your car in gridlocked traffic, unable to move forward or back, suspended within the car. Some of Augé’s non-places are also perfect for having a non-experience: waiting rooms, airport departure lounges, motel rooms… In fact, perhaps waiting really is the main characteristic of a non-experience: in an activity-driven, hyper-substantive world, being compelled, even briefly, to do nothing, can feel excruciating to individuals. Just think of those moments waiting for the crossing to activate: don’t those moments seem to take a long, long time to pass?

So I think it is great that Pauer and Octopus’s intervention has turned a non-experience into something which might involve amusement or puzzlement or pleasure… There is a range of stickers, each offering the pedestrian different outcomes: ‘press the button to end all wars’ reads one, while another says ‘press the button to fall in love’. You can see a short video about the project here:

Perhaps one of the great things about street art is its capacity to turn a non-experience into something else: a boring commute (by foot or in a car or on a train) can be transformed into an opportunity to view art, to be surprised, to smile, to feel frustration, laugh. Press the button to feel something; press the button to think.

Swoon at Metro Gallery

Last night was the official opening of Swoon’s show, Thekla, at Metro Gallery in Melbourne.

It would be an understatement to say that this event drew the crowds.

The gallery was packed. It was actually quite hard to view the artworks properly under those conditions, and so I’ll be returning another day for a better look.

The show uses every inch of the gallery’s available floor space, and in addition re-shapes the gallery rooms (by adding painted and graffiti-ed steps here and there) and transforms its textures, by cladding its white walls with paper and cardboard. The artworks are sometimes affixed to these transformed walls; at other times they stand upright on the floor, angling out from the walls so that the exhibition has a pleasingly multi-dimensional feel. Apparently it took the best part of two weeks to install this show, and the efforts were well worth it – the space looks incredible.

Some of the works I had seen before, on the streets or in other galleries. Even so, they are given a freshness by virtue of their inclusion here in a coherent large-scale show, which allows all of Swoon’s great strengths as an artist to be displayed: the sense of storytelling, the vividness of the characterisation of her subjects, the many different skills used in making the artworks, and the way that a gallery space is taken over by the artworks and converted, temporarily, into something else – some other space.

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

The works are so incredibly detailed:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

It’s worth mentioning that Metro Gallery is based in Armadale, an area of Melbourne which is – you could say – not well known for its street art. Certainly, the crowd last night contained a large percentage of the very well-heeled and very well-off. And no doubt many of those present would have been well pleased by the speech given by the guest invited to launch the show, the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu.

Baillieu’s speech seemed to have been written by someone who knew nothing about (a) street art (b) Swoon and (c) Swoon’s art. You would think that at some point yesterday afternoon when the speechwriter sat down with a piece of paper to sketch out a few talking points for Baillieu it might have been noticed that they were woefully under-informed. Apparently not. Baillieu talked at length, managing to embarass himself and much of the audience, who were cringing as he said incoherent things like ‘You’re Swoon, I’m swim, this is swell’. The best you can say about it is that after a time, the speech ended. Shockingly bad.

And enough dwelling on the ignorance of Liberal politics, let’s look at some more images of Swoon’s beautiful works:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

Thekla is on until 5 March. ‘Worth seeing’ is an understatement.

Clinging to the raft….

Today I went to see ‘The Raft’, a video work by Bill Viola which is on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 20 February.

I’ve written about Viola’s work on this blog before, when I saw ‘Ocean without a shore’ at the National Gallery of Victoria. That was in February 2009, and Victoria had just experienced its worst ever bushfires, and watching an artwork which displayed the boundary between the living and the dead as a metaphorical wall of water seemed inexpressibly sad and melancholic.

Two years on, and Australia is experiencing floods. As many readers of this blog will be well aware, Queensland has been deluged with rain, with many parts of the state still under water after several weeks. Victoria too has been flooded in its northern, rural reaches; and on Friday night, the tail end of a tropical cyclone in Queensland meant that parts of Melbourne were awash with water. Suddenly, ‘so much water, so close to home’, as the Paul Kelly song would put it.

Some of the floods that occurred in the last few weeks were flash floods: sudden onslaughts of water that appear out of nowhere, sweeping cars, street signs, and even houses with them. In parts of Queensland, people lost their lives, washed away by flash floods.

Just as I couldn’t help but think about the bushfires when I saw Viola’s work ‘Ocean without a shore’ two years ago, today I was unable to watch ‘The Raft’ without thinking about those devastating floods.

‘The Raft’ (2004) echoes the famous work by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).

It depicts the after-effects of the sinking of a frigate, the Méduse, which ran aground in 1816. Over 140 people clung to an inexpertly constructed raft; only 15 were still alive when rescue arrived.

The image was later used by the Irish band The Pogues as the cover for their album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, with band members superimposed upon the raft with the survivors:

Viola provides us with a metaphorical raft, rather than any kind of actual vessel adrift on the high seas. Instead, the work, which is a video/sound installation lasting 10.33minutes, begins with a group of people standing in an anonymous space. It is, no doubt, the artist’s studio, but the figures act as if they are waiting for a bus, or a train, and soon that is how we look at them – they are a group of strangers, on the whole, engaged in the business of waiting, going about their everyday lives. Some of the group know each other: a couple here and there, but on the whole these are disconnected strangers. There are around 14 individuals when the work begins; gradually others arrive, and weave their way through the throng, to take up their own position in which to wait. As with all Viola’s work, the film is slowed down considerably, so that movements are heightened and rendered anti-naturalistic. The soundtrack is an indistinct blur of everyday sounds.

Here is an abridged version of the work, which begins around this point, skipping the several minutes beforehand in which the individuals are simply passing time, waiting:

After a few minutes, to the left of the screen, water appears, flowing over the ground. The figures on the left look down and it and around, but suddenly a blast of water explodes forcefully over the figures, not only drenching them but actually bowling some of them over: it is as though a water cannon has been unleashed upon them. At the same time, a similar jet of water begins from the right hand side, so that the figures are buffeted from all sides.

People drop, in painfully slow motion, to their knees, attempting to brace themselves against the force of the water; some lie prone and motionless; others stagger around, blindly, trying to escape the jets. Splayed hands are raised in the vain effort to deflect the spray. On the soundtrack is a deafening roar, industrial, indecipherable. As with all of Viola’s work, the lighting is so cleverly done that each frame resembles a still painting; and in particular, of course, many parts of this work evokes Géricault’s own raft, and the possibilities of survival in the midst of devastation. I found myself sitting with open mouth, astonished at the images, unable to imagine (or perhaps only too able to imagine, thanks to the viscerality of the work) the suffering of the body in the face of so much liquid force.

After several minutes, the force of the water begins to subside, until it gradually ebbs away. Some of the figures seem frozen in shock, their faces contorted and agonised. One woman shakes out her hair, which scatters drops of water in jewelled arcs. Two strangers discover that they are holding each other up. One boy reaches down to assist an elderly woman who has been lying motionless face down on the ground. Their disparateness is gone forever; these disconnected individuals are utterly joined together: the trauma of the event has forged a community.

It’s all too easy to see this as a ready parable for the aftermath of disaster, and for the strength of community evidenced in flood-affected areas, and I’m slightly hesitant to give in to that reading. I would rather read the work as being about randomness. The individuals are simply going about their lives when the water arrives. (‘Water’ could be any disaster: fire, illness, crime, terrorism, bereavement…) There is no reason for it; it simply comes. There is no rationality to their reactions; once the water has arrived, they simply move about as they must. And once it has gone, there is no explanation for how or why they end up in the positions they do. They are just there. Such is the nature of disaster. It comes without warning; it has no reasons. Survival is random, as is death.

All of Viola’s individuals are still alive after the water recedes: the raft saves them. The shipwrecked crew of the Méduse were not so lucky: over 130 of them died on their raft. The mere presence of a raft is no guarantee; the mere fact of survivorship does not generate community. And if communities are to be built, I would like us not to have to depend on disaster as the foundation for them.

‘Be free’…

Last year, when I wasnot long returned from travelling overseas for 3 months and was taking our cat to the vet to be weighed (yes, she is on a weight reduction diet, the poor, chunky thing), I came across this artwork:

It’s a nicey composed work, a combination of stencil work for the figure and the text (which reads ‘Be Free’), with playing cards glued to the wall as though the little girl is scattering them to the winds.

I really liked its positioning and execution, and thought that it was one of the most interesting works that had appeared around Melbourne while I had been away. But I also assumed it was a single work.

Yesterday, on an evening when it was too hot to cook, we headed out to eat at a local cafe. On the way, I was delighted to discover another ‘Be Free’, freshly applied to a wall at the corner of Victoria Street and Brunswick Street:

Again, nicely positioned; again, the combination of stencil work with the playing cards to add texture and dimension.

And then this morning, in another suburb, I saw this work:

A different positioned figure this time (and an adult rather than a child), and the composition seems altered to fit the different dimensions of this space, which is at the entrance to a rather drab underpass leading away from a MacDonalds and a brothel – exactly the sort of location that to me needs an exhortation to ‘be free’.

As I came out of the underpass on the other side, I saw the local council ‘Graffiti Clean-Up’ van approaching. I hope that this beautiful work is still there tomorrow…

New discoveries…

I’ve seen a paste-up of a delicate and evocative drawing several times around Fitzroy recently:

I didn’t know who the artist was, although it seemed from the drawing that it might be signed ‘Kaff-eine’ (inscribed on the little fox).

Last week, I received one of those emails from WordPress telling me that someone had subscribed to this blog (always nice to hear). The subscriber had a URL, which I clicked on. It turns out that the susbcriber is none other than Kaff-eine, and the link took me to this site, on which you can see lots of examples of Kaff-eine’s work.

So, thanks, Kaff-eine, for subscribing, and thanks also for making such fantastic drawings and paste-ups, which bring the atmosphere of a fairytale or fable into the spaces of the city….

Textile textures….

I was out walking with friends the other evening, and on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy I came across two beautiful interventions in public space – really two of the most delightful and pleasurable pieces of work I have seen in a long time.

I’ve found it hard to put a name to what kind of work they are: I suppose the name that would most obviously be given to them would be ‘yarn-bombing’, but seeing these works made me realise how little I like that term and how inadequate I think it is for the grace and delicacy involved in these works, in which knitted woollen shapes are fastened around a grey metal pole, and white lace is fitted closely to the narrow trunks of nearby trees. As you can see, part of the visual pleasure in the works is how they make the man-made pole and the natural tree trunks somehow akin to each other, linked by their verticality and their new roles as part of the street sculpture.

‘Yarn-bombing’ draws an analogy with tagging, whereby a writer puts up their tag so often that a city or a suburb is ‘bombed’ by the tag. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right with these sorts of works, and I think a new name needs to be found: textile sculptures? fabric sculptures? The works use a textile, such as wool or cotton, to make shapes in public space, but they also work with the shapes already present: in these images they are wrapped around the trees and around the pole supporting a street sign. To that extent the work is dependent on transforming something into part of the sculpture, so that a pole is no longer just a pole, and a group of trees becomes part of a delicate network of lace.

Encountering these works really was a delight: we all exclaimed out loud and stood and admired them for several minutes. It is an incomparable example of the potential for street art to intercede in public space in a manner that brings sheer joy to the spectator. Maybe others might walk past feeling simply puzzled as to their presence or thinking dismissive thoughts about the purpose of the activity. For me, it demonstrates the care and effort that can be involved in street art. How long did it take to make these works? How did the artist(s) select the site? And it demonstrates that street art still has the capacity to create moments of delight in the midst of the city.

Ho ho ho….

Headed into the centre of Melbourne today to try to do the minimal amount of xmas shopping that I am involved in. Since I was on Bourke Street, I came across the massive queue of people that was waiting to see the Myer windows.

For those readers who are not from Melbourne, let me explain that Myer is a large department store (a bit like Macys in New York City, or Selfridges in London). Every year, its windows are the location for a display of elaborate mechanised puppetry and kitschery, with some kind of seasonal theme (this year it’s The Nutcracker; in previous years it has been things like a staging of Mem Fox’s novel Wombat Divine, or one of the Olivia stories).

The Myer christmas windows are particularly kitsch, like a pantomime staged in the middle of a city street. They exist ostensibly to entertain children and are supposed to be part of the ‘magic of christmas’ and viewing the windows has become part of the run-up to christmas for many people. (The fact that viewing the windows brings people to a department store where, after looking at the windows, they might well wander inside and spend some money, is both taken for granted and also repressed within the acceptance of the Myer windows as part of ‘the magic of christmas’ in Melbourne.)

The Myer windows have hosted some other displays which have been less kitsch and more challenging. Over a decade ago, the Urban Dream Capsule lived in the Myer windows for some weeks: eating, sleeping, dancing, clowning, and passing the time, all the while on display to the passers by. I went down to Bourke Street on several occasions and watched the Dream Capsule’s members, and the whole event was, variously, highly entertaining and humorously staged, while also being quite moving and affecting at times (occasionally, the participants would feel the strain of their lengthy performance, and would attempt to find moments and spaces of privacy within the extreme visibility of the windows: at those times, as an audience member, you would suddenly become aware of the nature of the gaze and the relationship between performer and audience in a completely new way).

So the Urban Dream Capsule was a nice antidote to the commercialism of the christmas windows. But now there’s another way to think critically about window displays, commerce and art, thanks to Nick Ilton and Bados Earthling, who will be putting on their own version of the Myer christmas windows on Saturday 18th December in Union Lane and Hosier lanes.

Bados has done some larger panels which will be temporarily put up in the lanes, and he’ll do his performance graffiti in front of them; Nick has made triptychs depicting Mary and Joseph as outer suburbanites:

Sounds like a great reason to come into the city next Saturday.

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.