Wednesday 20th April 2016Massive Cairo Mural
Over the last few years, one of the most interesting types of visual trickery to emerge has become almost a fixture in the public art world. The idea is that from a particular location, a three dimensional illusion is constructed that exists only when the viewer is standing in that one spot. A single step away to either side breaks the perspective and the illusion is gone, leaving only a strange collection of disconnected shapes that don't seem to form anything at all.
Street art is many things, but it is rarely grandiose in scope. The nature of the social climate in which it's painted - that is to say, secretly, illegally, and usually in the dead of night - makes it difficult if not impossible to work on a scale larger than a single wall canvas. This massive mural, located in Cairo, is a perfect example of how the two techniques can be blended together to create something truly staggering.
The brainchild of a French-Tunisian street artist who goes by the name eL Seed, the piece is actually composed of a staggering number of individual pieces that, when taken singly, amount to virtually nothing. Standing atop a nearby hill, however, the pieces click together into a giant piece of so-called 'calligraffiti' in Arabic, which says: "If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes."
Due to the extremely repressive government currently in power in Egypt, the development and construction of the piece had to be completed in total secrecy from the government. Current Egyptian law prohibits public artist expression, as it is no doubt likely to inflame a populace that is already in a state of near-constant turmoil after the Arab Spring uprising that started in Egypt several years ago.
Fortunately for us, eL Seed and his collaborators documented the entire process, from planning to execution to the final reveal. While the piece was kept secret from the powers that be, the rest of those involved were aware of the intentions. "We got the blessing of the priest," he says. "He gave us permission and everyone in the neighborhood knew about it."
The piece is ambitious, daring, and unique among street art, and it's an incredible example of what can be accomplished under even the most difficult conditions. Sometimes out of the worst situations, the most amazing creations emerge.
Posted on April 20th 2016 on 02:02am
Wednesday 06th April 2016Graffiti Miscommunique
Life and work is always difficult for the graffiti artist. Sneaking around in the dead of night isn't always the best environment for the creation of a masterpiece, but there's little doubt that on some level, at least, that's part of the allure that draws them to the style in the first place. Sticking it to the man, getting one back for the little guy, and lampooning the fat cats etc.
It must make it doubly difficult to be commissioned by a town to provide a piece of artwork, as was recently done in Rheims, France, by one of France's leading graffiti artists, Christian Guemy, who goes by the alias C215.
It must be triply difficult to then suddenly find yourself a victim of French bureaucracy, which rivals only that of England (and possibly the Los Angeles Municipal Court) for sheer bloody-mindedness. The expression 'the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing' isn't quite so much accurate in this situation, because it seems more likely that each hand didn't know that there even was a second hand to be considered.
Almost immediately after the duly commissioned piece was completed by C215 to the general appreciation and acclaim of the citizens and city officials of Rheims, the city's anti-graffiti squad promptly came along and scrubbed it off the wall where it had been painted. This wasn't a requested piece of removal, they simply took it upon themselves to remove it in the normal course of their duties, because nobody had thought to tell them that it was officially sanctioned and should be left alone.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Guemy has no doubt dealt with this sort of thing regularly before he went mainstream and began taking commissions, and thus was rather sanguine about the whole thing. Fortunately, the town hall has apologized, and C215 will no doubt be back in Rheims to repair the hideous damage done by the city's anti-graffiti task force.
This time, the arts and culture department will be informing the cleanup crews about the new works beforehand, to prevent any ridiculous graffiti removal projects from moving forwards.
Posted on April 06th 2016 on 01:43am
Wednesday 25th November 2015Keep the Berlin Wall Standing!
Now before you do a double take, nobody is suggesting that the decades-gone dividing wall between East and West Germany that ran straight through the heart of Berlin should be re-established. The Fall of the Wall was one of the most iconic moments in the final moments of the Cold War, and the first photographs of that day are equally iconic images that live forever in the minds of everyone who knew just how much it meant.
At this point, the majority of the wall is long-gone, but sections of it have been preserved as a monument to the mistakes of past years and past regimes. While it was standing, it was such a hated symbol of oppression and division that it naturally aroused both artistic and intellectual rage - in other words, it was completely covered in graffiti. Ranging from the purely angry to the politically motivated to the aesthetic attempts to create beauty from the tragically oppressive. Over the years since the destruction of the wall, tourists and visitors to the historic site have taken to adding their own marks to what little of the wall remains.
In fact, the site has become so popular that it draws an estimated 3 million tourists every year, and is probably the most popular site for smartphone selfies in the entire city. That much traffic comes with its own inherent risks - primarily vandalism, which is unsurprising in an unprotected open air environment - especially for something so completely covered in graffiti. The more troubling and damaging aspect is that some visitors seem to feel that they are entitled to take a small piece of the wall home with them, and that obviously creates some problems for those who are tasked with maintaining the East Side Gallery, as it is known.
Sascha Langenbach, spokesman for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the district of Berlin that contains the gallery section, has grown frustrated with the audacity of tourists. “People come and pick and scratch at it with everything from keys to penknives, hoping to take a piece home with them. Last week we caught a Japanese girl in the act of spraying a complete panel in silver and red paint. She had brought a whole crate of spray paint with her."
Suddenly, the proposed idea of fencing in one of the most famous walls in Europe no longer seems completely insane. Hopefully, efforts to preserve what remains of the wall will succeed, leaving a cautionary tale for tomorrow's generations.
Posted on November 25th 2015 on 05:05am
Wednesday 21st October 2015Crashing the Fourth Wall
If you're at all into theater, cinematography or even media studies in general, you've probably run into the term 'the fourth wall' before. In case you haven't, it refers to the illusion that we experience while watching a movie or a play, where we can see at most only 3 walls on the stage, and the fourth wall is represented by our gaze, whether it's at a screen or at the edge of a stage. "Breaking the fourth wall' is what happens when an actor from the production breaks the illusion that the viewer is only passive, and not actually an integral part of the performance.
There are a number of examples of how this is used to great effect; the critically-acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards uses it between the main character and the viewer, as does the even more recent USA Network show Mr. Robot, between the narrator and the viewer. Typically, however, this is an obvious and intentional decision made by the writers and producers of the show as a narrative device, but this isn't always the case.
The show Homeland concerns the trials and tribulations of a CIA agent and her various struggles with Iranian and other Middle Eastern intelligence assets, but it's not shot on location anywhere in the Middle East. As a result, when recreating some of the scenes they need as studio sets, they decided to hire a group of graffiti artists to replicate some of the defiant urban feel - but all in Arabic script. Unfortunately for the set designers, none of them were fluent in Arabic, and the artists decided to use the chance as a moment to speak out about the way the show depicts the Arab world, crashing right through the fourth wall without looking back.
A number of subversive graffiti tags were chosen and used on set, and the artists were lucky enough to get their tags shown on screen. "Homeland is racist" is a fairly obvious one, but another one read "Homeland is a watermelon", which is apparently a common Arabic idiom to describe something as silly or meaningless.
"In this graffiti we are trying to call for a more differentiated view of the region, and we're also trying to say that things aren't as simple as they seem on this show," said Caram Kapp in an interview with the BBC. Hard to find anything wrong with that! For those of you who want to learn more about the reasons they took this opportunity, a full statement has been published here: http://www.hebaamin.com/arabian-street-artists-bomb-homeland-why-we-hacked-an-award-winning-series/
Posted on October 21st 2015 on 02:24am
Friday 03rd October 2014Vandalising Street Art
Street art has some truly messy roots, even by the standards of the art world. Essentially starting out of the graffiti movement (if it can even be called that in its infancy), the works were inherently illegal from the very beginning. An entire subculture was spawned outside of the realms of the supposedly civilized art world, and like all subcultures, it developed its own rules and social taboos. One of them involved the taboo of painting over another's work - provided it was a genuine work of art (by the standards of the subculture). It was still done, of course, but it wasn't merely accepted practice but could be taken slap in the face of the artist whose work was being covered up. However, there grows a kind of interplay between the various artists if they don't know each other, a kind of narrative that is established by their interactions with each other through their works.
Banksy, of course, changed the entire world of street art by becoming a valuable commodity. When street art was treated as a public nuisance, nobody in the dominant culture paid any attention to the squabbles of those they saw as essentially criminals. But once Banksy appeared and captured the hearts, minds and dollar bills of the art-loving public, street art suddenly began to get noticed. A number of thorny and tangled legal issues emerged, such as the ownership of a work created partly using materials owned by someone else (say, the wall of the youth centre we mentioned in our last Banksy article). So when Banksy's latest work, Girl with the Pierced Eardrum, a takeoff on Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer, the art world is in a bit of a dither as to how to respond.
Frank Malt, one of the most noted authorities on street art and street artists in the UK, said “Banksy puts the work up for the public to enjoy but people are exploiting it. People think it’s fun to deface Banksy’s work because they may get a name for themselves. Girl with the Pierced Eardrum could have been defaced by anyone – it could have been kids wanting a bit of attention."
The interesting thing is that there has yet to be a reaction from Banksy as to how he feels about the supposed defacement. It's not like he can really place any formal objections to how his work is treated, as it is still technically criminal in nature. However, it would change the entire nature of his work if he started creating it for the express purpose of building a dialog or narrative with other artists. How cool would that be?
Posted on October 03rd 2014 on 08:08pm
Friday 21st March 2014Inspiration Station: Exit Through the Gift Shop
As we mentioned in our previous post, street has come an incredibly long way towards being accepted, albeit somewhat paradoxically, as part of the mainstream art world. Despite being forged in the underground (often literally - take a look at a New York City subway train next time you happen to be in town), it has recently begun to blossom into psychedelically coloured gallery spaces throughout much of the art world, and even reaching film festivals, as we'll see in Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film.
One of the most celebrated art documentaries in recent years, Exit Through the Gift Shop debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 to excellent critical reception. The first feature-length film by the only street artist most people can name, Exit Through the Gift Shop rapidly expanded in fame and prominence. It details the story of a videography-obsessed store owner who happens to be related to an extremely famous street artist who goes by the name 'Space Invader'. Visiting home in France, he films his cousin at work and the work itself, and eventually reaches out to Shepard Fairey, the American street artist, and the two travel across the United States filming a huge variety of work. Eventually, they meet up with Banksy, they put on a show, and all sorts of excellent hijinks ensue that we won't spoil for you here.
The film itself, narrated by Rhys Ifans, is a true joy to watch, and sticks with you for quite some time after the credits roll. Amusingly enough, the real Banksy is slightly less than willing to come right out and say how much of the film (if any) is actually true documentary, or whether the entire thing is actually what's known as a mockumentary (think "This is Spinal Tap"). Considering the sly gutter smirk that barely hides behind every piece of work Banksy has ever done, it's not hard to imagine that the entire film is an elaborate joke being played by an artist who doesn't truly feel - and doesn't want to feel - a part of the more "traditional" artistic community.
The only way to decide for yourself, of course, is to see the film. No matter what you wind up believing (believe that Banksy isn't going to drawn out to say one way or the other), there is something truly inspiring about the types of work that Banksy does, and you may find yourself even more eager than usual to get back into the studio (or the street corner) after you finish watching. Enjoy!
Posted on March 21st 2014 on 11:24pm
Tuesday 18th March 2014Street Art Crosses Into the Gallery
Contemporary art always seems to be reinventing itself. In fact, almost the very nature of the word 'contemporary' seems to imply a constant sense of reinvention and re-examination. Every since Marcel Duchamps stuck a urinal in a gallery in 1917, scrawled the name 'R. Mutt' on it and titled it "Fountain", thereby kicking off the Dada movement in the popular imagination and all that came after it, there has been a constant desire to push the envelope of what constitutes "art". That trend is rarely more visible now than in many types of installation work that, in many opinions, border on the ridiculous (see our recent post about Shia LaBeouf's attempt to apologize for plagiarism with a plagiarised installation/exhibit titled #IAMSORRY).
An equally in-your-face artistic revolution has been taking place outside the gallery over the past several decades, in the form of graffiti. While many scoffed at the elaborate system of tags that suddenly appear across the concrete canvases that fill the urban world, it is growing harder and hard to maintain the belief that there is no artistic merit to the pieces. By now, the name 'Banksy' is popular from the art world to the hipster world and many places in between, arguably the poster child for the serious street artist (though doubtless, he would reject that with a smirk). Any number of street artists have more cult followings, but the popularity is on the rise.
Nothing showcases the rising arc of street art's popularity more thoroughly than the furor that arose surrounding the mural 'Slave Labour' by Banksy in 2013. Painted as a large mural on the side of a thrift store in North London during a single night, the piece depicts a small boy sewing a Union Jack. As a result of this choice of venue/canvas - sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which with street art, as the reactions of the passersby must surely be considered part of the piece itself - the owners of the building instantly became the owners of the piece itself, and had the entire section of concrete wall removed. The piece, such as it is, eventually sold at auction for a staggering $1.1 million USD. If that doesn't drive home the reality of street art as valid, nothing will.
Finally, many of those who began careers and gained fame as street artists have quite comfortably made the transition to more easily saleable formats. Shepard Fairey, a United States-born street artist famous for a number of pieces, most notably a widespread sticker campaign featuring late wrestler Andre the Giant beneath huge block letters saying 'OBEY', was also the creator of one of the most iconic images of the last decade, a red blue and yellow poster featuring President Barack Obama subtitled 'Hope'. Banksy also hasn't steered clear of similar popular fame, having even recently produced a documentary (arguably a mockumentary) recently entitled 'Exit Through the Gift Shop', which we'll be looking at in our next post!
Posted on March 18th 2014 on 10:24pm