Archive for the ‘Cans Festival’ Tag

The Cans Festival (Mark 1)

In late May this year, artists from a range of different countries (Australia, the US, Holland, France, Portugal and more) were flown to London to take part in creating the Cans Festival, a massive exhibition of stencil art.

The location was a disused tunnel in Leake Street, near Waterloo Station. This tunnel had had its fair share of graffiti applied to it in the past, but the Cans Festival turned it into a unprecedented display of street art.

The location was kept secret while the artists went to work over a period of several days, but once it became known where the Festival was to take place, hundreds of people queued for up to three hours at a time to see the artworks. The tunnel was filled with people, some adding their own stencils or tags to the walls, other photographing what they saw. For a sense of the massive public enthusiasm for the event, do a search on Flickr for ‘Cans Festival’ or watch any of the many videos made at the Festival:

When I visited London in July, things had quietened down at the site. There were still people visiting (around 20 people when I was there), but it was possible to take photographs without other people in the shot, and to stand back and look at the sheer scale of the place and the display (the tunnel is a couple of hundred metres long, and its curved walls around 10 metres high).

The ‘official’ artworks – by artists such as Vexta, Tom Civil and DLux (all from Australia), Vhils (Portugal), C215, Blek Le Rat and Jef Aerosol (France), Lex-Sten (Italy), Kaagman (Holland), Logan Hicks and Faile (the US), Pure Evil, Eine and Banksy (the UK) – were now surrounded by unofficial additions. Sometimes people had stencilled an image, sometimes they had tagged over other people’s work. The tunnel was crammed with images: railings and posts had been sprayed, as had the ground: someone had sprayed a stencil version of a scalectrix racing track, complete with cars, through the tunnel.

Some of the images were simply amazing. I’ve written already about the works by Logan Hicks (see the entry ‘In anticipation…’). Other memorable ones included this work by Vhils, a young Portuguese artist:

For a sense of its scale, try to imagine that I (who stand 1.78m tall) would reach eye level on these faces. And there were dozens of these amazing images: a fantastic work by Eine, a huge and delicate paste-up by Faile, several of C215’s faces, some glittering figures by Pure Evil.

And of course several works by Banksy, an artist derided by some but considered by many to be single=handedly responsible for popularising street art around the world. The tunnel had previously contained some old works by Banksy: in this photograph you can see a faded ‘snorting copper’ kneeling at ground level and surrounded by more recent additions for the Festival:

Of the several Banksys in the Festival, my favourite was a massive image of a hoodie-wearing, knife-holding, bleeding boy. The scale of this work is huge, and yet it is extremely detailed, showing Banksy’s skill as an artist (often forgotten in the brou-ha-ha that always follows his various stunts).

In the neatest of copperplate script to the left of this boy’s sneaker, it reads, ‘I am starving’. Many dismiss Banksy’s penchant for a catchphrase as glib, but I found that this work had a certain resonance, in a city where the homeless and hungry are present on many street corners. Too hard to do justice to Banksy’s work in this post: watch this space for further discussion of his work.

To see all these works in one place – and in the street, not in a gallery – I walked up and down, photographing, photographing, unable to stop smiling. My daughter, who is 6, said: ‘mama, I’ve never seen so much graffiti in one place’, and it was very true.

But I don’t want to overlook the unofficial additions to the Festival, made by the hundreds of people who came and stencilled or tagged their own words and images at the site. Here’s one, out of thousands:

I love this. I like to imagine that the artist perhaps didn’t have any stencils with them when visiting and simply borrowed a spraycan from someone, in order to spray around their hand.

And who, you may ask, made all of this possible? Banksy. Not just through his popularising of street art, but far more directly in that he paid the airfares of the visiting artists and covered the costs of the event, which many estimate to be a cool half a million pounds.

Perhaps reading about the Cans Festival might make you want to go and see it for yourself? Well, yes, you should go and see it, but in fact all of the works I’m writing about no longer exist. That’s right: last weekend a whole new crew of artists were brought in and the tunnel has been entirely repainted. Take a look at the official website here for details of the artists involved. Cans Festival Mark 2 !

How long will the work be there? I don’t know, but I really hope it will still be there when I visit London again in October. But if it’s not – well, contrary to those who seek to preserve street artworks by putting plexiglass over them (as has been done with Banksys in London and in Melbourne), ephemerality is part of the nature of street art.

In anticipation….

I’m writing this at a moment of great anticipation. Next week, an exhibition will open in Melbourne: Futureshock (Part 1), at the Per Square Metre Gallery in Johnston Street, Collingwood.

Three artists are exhibiting: Ha Ha, who is something of a Melbourne institution these days (a prolific, highly respected, incredibly influential, and extremely ethical street artist); Vex Ta, a Melbourne artist who is on a trajectory of international stardom and is recently returned from the Cans Festival in London, where she painted alongside some of the best known street artist in the world right now; and Logan Hicks. Logan Hicks is an American artist who has lived overseas but is now based in Brooklyn. And – what can I say – I am a fan of his work.

I had seen images of his work online. Many, many street artists like his work, and his name tends to come up in conversation. He has his own website here. On YouTube, you can watch time-lapse footage of Logan Hicks spraying a stencil:

I had looked at the online images of his work, and had admired what I had seen, but recently I had the chance to stand in the same room as 16 of his works, and that was a stunning experience.

When I was in London in July, a gallery called Black Rat Press was showing his work. The gallery space at Black Rat Press is located in a converted tunnel, so that instead of the standard ‘white cube’ there is a curved arc of exposed brick. The works were hung around this curved, vaguely subterranean room, and the mottled red brick provided a fitting backdrop to them.

Logan Hicks’s images tend to be of urban scenes: tired commuters on the New York subway, gazing into the near distance; a deserted stoop in front of a decaying building; the escalator that descends into a train station; the facade of a building. These images are rendered by means of extremely detailed stencil-making. Hicks appears to cut his intricate shapes with ease: the images appear directly painted rather than transferred through the indirection of a stencil.

His colour palette is sombre – greys, black, more grey. But these monochromal repetitions are counterposed in some of his works to a sudden, astonishingly bright, primary colour. In one image, the sky is red; in another, a window appears golden yellow. The effect, for me, is enormously pleasing: even now, several weeks after seeing them, the works hover in my memory.

I visited the gallery with my partner and our daughter. After a while they went outside, to sit in the sunny courtyard that belongs to Cargo, a tremendously hip Shoreditch bar. (One wall of Cargo’s courtyard is adorned with works by various famed street artists: Logan Hicks has a work on that wall, and so does Shepard Fairey, while two Banksys look demurely out from behind their plexiglass protective cover.)

While Peter and Sophie were outside, I chatted to the gallery staff member who was present. He said the opening night had gone well, and pointed to several red dots next to various works. ‘Wait a minute’, he said, ‘You should see the works like this…’, and he switched off the main gallery lights. In their place a number of small track lights pointed at the images. The metallic lustre of the paint emerged; the images seemed even more to fade into the brickwork. For a moment, gallery became street: image on brick, artificial light turned almost into the gloom of a tunnel.

Logan Hicks’s works seem poised at that delicate moment between appearing and disappearing. I felt this acutely when I saw his contribution to the Cans Festival, Banksy’s paintfest in a disused tunnel called Leake Street, near Waterloo Station in London. Hicks was one of the artists invited to participate, and he painted two large works on the brickwork of the walls, in one of the dimmest corners of the tunnel. One is an image of Union Square subway station; another shows a solitary man on a subway train. Both works evoke the city as almost uncannily unpopulated, yet crowded with the machinery of modernity. Both are peaceful yet disquieting images. Both sink into the walls, yet insinuate their images outwards toward the spectator.

Where so much of street art is about getting noticed, Hicks’s work seems almost to be receding away from the viewer. Is it this that captivates me so much?