Posts Tagged ‘graffiti’

Shape One

January 16, 2010

The Shape began close to a ghost road in East London. Ostensibly, the junction at the southern tip of Kingsland Road is a crossroad. Except it isn’t. The junction is the convergence point of four roads: Kingsland Road, Old Street, Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road. But, in fact, there is a phantom fifth: a small invisible right turn leads Kingsland Road into Old Street: Ophir Road. As far as I know, its naming is obscured, perhaps even unmarked on street level, but the ever roving Google Eye discloses the past as simply as the present.

If that is not intriguing enough – that an ancient road can exist but not not be seen – then its name offers a further enigma. Ophir is a biblical name for an unidentified region. The name is linked with King Solomon’s Mines: a mythical treasure trove purported to exist in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and China, among others.

From Kingsland Road I took Ophir Road, unknown to me at the time, and my perambulation – and Shape One – began. I hadn’t planned the shape, and in fact I wasn’t conscious that the shape had begun either. I was heading to the Artbook Bookshop on Pitfield Road and as soon as I turned the street corner I could see the bookshop was closed. A small panic arose, subdued only by reaching the sign in the window. I would have to wait a further  forty minutes until it opened and it was then I decided on my derivé.

I crossed Old Street diagonally, to the corner of Tabernacle Street, where a nondescript religious brick monument stands opposite another, doomed, brick bastion which holds a far more powerful and contemporary resonance: The Foundry. Along Tabernacle and right into Leonard Street, sidling beside the church nestled among the bars, graphic designers and architects. Along one side of the church prose had been sprayed on a long jet-black construction hoarding. The silver sprayed words disjointed, dodging and weaving the fly posters. It read:

NO Different to Our Fathers Sons
OUR BOYS We Bring Em Back
In Shrouds
Wrapped tight in UNION
We say that they our Glorious
We name these Boys as BRAVES
We call these MEN
We tell them to their Graves
For until Each one is
Pray For
Our Collective Violence
And if we say they died in vain
AND SHATTER Bitter Comfort Dear!
Held Dear Close
They Do Not Die In Vain My Friends…
They Do Not Throw Their Turn A WAY
They Die So We Can See Ourselves
Real Souljahs

It finished abruptly, the final word missing. Perhaps the author ran out of time. Perhaps the author was caught.

What followed was a series of loops. I walked in a circle around the wheel at the crossing of Leonard Street and Paul Street, and then I took another loop around the old Church and back onto Leonard Street to head East. I crossed  Great Eastern Street (presumably named after the 1862 railway company) and up Charlotte Road to cross Old Street and into Hoxton Square. There I made a full anti-clockwise circuit.

On Coronet Street, behind the Lux bar, stands The Vestry Of St Leonard Shoreditch Electric Light Station with its Latin motto carved in stone:

E PULERE LUX ET VIS (‘Out of the dust, light and power’).

Over time since 1895 it burnt refuse to create steam which powered a generator for electricity. Only the shell remains now. Inside, students use the huge chambers to learn the circus trade. From here, I sauntered up a Hoxton vein (Pitfield Street) into the heart of Hoxton, past The George & Vulture pub, past the Habidashers Alms house, bombed in World War I.

By now the bookshop had to be open. So I moved south down Pitfield Street and Shape One ended.


Inside Out

August 4, 2009

Clearly a broad question but what is the role of art and art galleries?

Today I went to a modern art gallery in which, on one floor, an employee of the gallery had been given the opportunity to curate his own exhibition. Whilst I was in the room, a group of high school students where being given an introduction to the work by a different member of staff. The room was full of graffiti. On one wall directly opposite the entrance to the room was a full size piece of ‘writing’ – classic style typography in 6 foot high letters. It was sprayed directly onto the plaster, but this was the only piece unframed. Around the rest of the room were other smaller pieces, some on poster size paper stuck onto the wall, some on post-it size paper, but mostly they were framed. I have always liked graffiti, the variations of styles, the colours, the words, the typography, the way a well sprayed picture easily rivals anything done with paint on canvas. The work in here was nowhere near the quality I have seen either outside in places like Marseilles or Barcelona, or in magazines or books like On The Run or Spraycan Art, but it was accomplished enough to be interesting to take a look at briefly. But I was far more interested in hanging about to hear how a group of 16 year old boys would have this art explained to them, and also the broader question of “what the fuck is going on?”. Why is graffiti being framed and put in galleries, and conversely, why did the National Gallery in London run a show where copies of classic paintings where printed in high quality and put up on street walls? Why is art inside out? It was all OK when the YBA’s were at it….wasn’t it?

Some time ago I listened to a great Philosophy Bites episode with Derek Matravers on what constitutes a work of art. Its clearly a huge, grey, financially motivated subject and I don’t intend to go in-depth here. Though part of what he spoke about was interesting in relation to graffiti. Matravers made the point that what ties something modern and controversial like Tracy Emin’s ‘Bed’ to the art world is that she is institutionalised as an ‘artist’: taught at an appropriate and ‘recognised’ art college, and therefore whatever she claims to be art, as an artist, makes it art. There’s a touch of Midas about this, clearly. Its certainly not a watertight argument and Matravers wasn’t arguing in its favour, but it seems to make a lot of sense. It means artworks are defined by their legacy and not by their popularity and it makes a strong case for the idea that modern art has been completely commodified: if you train to be a watchmaker then that’s what you ‘do’, and that’s what you’re paid to do. If you’re an artist, likewise. Though perhaps its always been like that – Michaelangelo was paid to paint too.

Today I was reminded of Matravers point whilst flicking through some cards in the gallery shop (more commodification). These cards were typical gallery shop fare: random collections of images from the history of art to modern day, quant though clichéd, possibly because they were pictures of art removed from context. These cards particularly so, because they were images by Banksy. Here was someone’s art photographed and reduced to the simplicity of a gift card, and after all his hard work ‘establishing’ himself. Banksy didn’t go to Goldsmiths. He doesn’t know Saatchi (well, he might now). All his hard work, having to chip away at the artworld from the outside. Having not flowed into the artworld by the correct channels and by befriending the right people, here was someone who had to personally take their work into art galleries and hang it themselves, ostensibly as a publicity stunt, but actually, because there was no other way to publicly transform from the lowly street artist to the dizzy heights of a successful artworld artist. Not only did he do that, but the work he chose to use was work which gleefully sabotaged classic paintings. Again, purported to be a ‘statement’, but actually it was his only option.

The schoolboys at the exhibition were told that “this kind of work” is “all about emotions” often created by “people your age”. And that was it. The gallery employee, though confident and experienced, really had no other way of describing the graffiti and seemed to be quietly wondering why it was in the gallery herself. So was I. She began to rely on the timeless avoidance technique of describing everything objectively instead – “the work is 12 by 12 inches and you can still see the undercoat of paint if you look at the sides”. This to me, was strikingly similar to putting works of art onto gift wrapping, cards and mugs: awkward and out of place. The very ‘non-establishment’ concept that still surrounds graffiti, perpetuated mostly by the media rather than practitioners, is completely at odds with being framed, placed in a gallery and needing explanation to the age group who created it.

To attempt to answer my own question, perhaps its galleries themselves that have become a commodity, not the art inside them. They’re like airports now, with their expensive shops, their expanses of glass and concrete, security guards watching, and their “walk here” and “do not touch” signage.