Archive for the ‘Indigo’ Tag
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.
Street art and graffiti, when spoken about by those who don’t enjoy the experience of discovering unauthorised art in city spaces, are sometimes said to deface the walls of the streets in which they are found. Calling it ‘defacement’ is a way of saying ‘damage to property’, of course, but interestingly, when street art’s detractors want to focus on the question of purely physical damage to property, they usually use the term ‘vandalism’. So the term ‘defacement’ seems to speak to something else, as though the walls of the city have an outward face, which has been altered, spoiled, or even destroyed by the artwork – literally de-faced. (There’ an excellent book on the concept of defacement by Michael Taussig, if you are interested in thinking more along these lines…)
Thinking of city walls in this way sounds odd, until we start thinking of how we are quite accustomed to speaking of the facade of a building, for example; both ‘facade’ and ‘face’ share the same root, from facia (face) in Latin.
On my way home from Paris to Melbourne, I was thinking about the term ‘defacement’ and how it gets used as a negative descriptor of street art and graffiti (well, it’s a long, long flight, you have many hours in which to ponder these things). If walls have faces that can be ‘damaged’, then that sets the street artwork up as operating as a form of disfigurement.
[If you don’t look at street art as a form of disfigurement, then of course the addition of artworks to the city walls by its artists can be construed in many, positive lights (as written about in previous posts on this blog): as a gift, as a contribution to the community, as a means of beautification of drab spaces, as a form of communication between the artist and other members of the community, and as a means of celebrating the city itself.]
It seemed particularly fitting to me to think through the idea of street art and graffiti as a form of defacement and disfigurement after having spent two weeks in Paris this May. I spent hours walking through the streets and saw some amazing and inspiring work. One of the things that was striking about it is the preponderance of figurative work: there are hundreds of portraits by dozens of artists adorning the walls of Paris, and here is a selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most.
Here’s a section of a large work by the Vancouver-based artist Indigo:
One of the curving black figures created by FKDL:
A beautifully placed image by C215:
The incomparable Miss.Tic, making stencils since the mid-1980s:
Two works, dancing together. The corps blanc, or white figure, is by Jerome Mesnager, the female figure is by Jef Aerosol, both also veterans of the French scene:
And here is one of Nemo’s typically segmented scenes, in which a dark silhouetted figure tumbles through various scenes against a backdrop of sandstone:
As a graduate student, much of my time was spent reading the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (and since becoming an academic, a lot of my time is spent teaching his work too), so it was a great pleasure to come across his face on a number of walls, placed there by the stencil artist PITR:
And I was fortunate enough to catch some freshly painted stencil works by Jana und JS, stunning in their photorealistic detail:
Finally, a slightly different kind of portrait, that of the grinning yellow cat made famous by Monsieur Chat. These cats apparently bound across many of Paris’s rooftops, but I caught sight of only one. You can just see its Cheshire-cat happiness high above the street, beaming down at the passers-by:
It’s easy to find this kind of street art appealing: well-executed images in bright colours, skillfully applied in well thought-out spaces. What’s not to like? Who could call these images a disfigurement of the walls? But I think that what I saw in Paris was more than just a negation of the criticism of street art’s detractors. And so I’ll say this: instead of simply being not-disfigurements, these works actively re-figure the streets of Paris, opening for the passer-by moments of narrative and instances of beauty where previously none had existed.