Around this time ten years ago the World Trade Centre had just come down, the ‘war on terror’ was about to begin and contemporary art still had nothing to say. In the same year that Martin Creed’s ‘Work No.227’ won the Turner Prize (a piece consisting of nothing more than a light turning off and on) it’s not surprising that a new generation of artists began turning away from a gallery system made impotent by conceptualism. The alternative was to embrace the medium of the street itself.
As stencil art exploded throughout the laneways of Melbourne it quickly found its way online where street artists from around the world were sharing ideas, exchanging techniques and building an audience. By cutting out the middleman, artists had direct contact with a new audience who shared their concerns. No curator could exclude their images for being unfashionably political, accessible and unpretentious. But now, 10 years on, street art couldn’t be more fashionable. As institutions scramble to catch up with the artists it seems that both parties are ready to benefit from some critical engagement.
Space Invaders is the first attempt by any Australian institution to go beyond the token gesture and present a broad survey of this thing called street art. Beginning in 2001 when the NGV realised that something important was happening right under their noses, an appeal was issued for stencil artists to print their images on paper, archival paper. So, with the magic word of the institution, what had been ephemeral became collectable and what had been ‘counter cultural’ became, simply, ‘cultural.’ Or so you might think.
When large institutions moved to embrace modern art in the 1930s it was only after modernism had been left to fend for, develop, and prove itself for a number of decades. In this way modern art had defined itself by its opposition to the status quo. So when museums moved to enshrine what began as a collection of avant-garde or ‘counter cultural’ movements, modern art quickly became the official culture of its time.
But as the contradiction of modern art as a state-sponsored avant-garde became apparent, its integrity quickly eroded. By the time postmodernism presented an alternative that embraced meaninglessness itself there wasn’t much meaning left in modernism to put up a fight. So with that, kitsch became cool, bilge became art and, once again, counter culture became the official culture of its time. And so the cycle goes.
Like any culture worth its place in history street art seems destined to run its course in a similar fashion. But for the time being its newfound alliance with institutions presents the opportunity to clarify and strengthen the strategies with which street art is moving beyond the tired spectre of postmodernism.
Space Invaders, curated by Jaklyn Babington, breaks down the diverse history of street art with an informed clarity. With catalogue contributions from Roger Butler, Eloise Peace, Alison Young and Din Heagney the exhibition offers a glimpse at a history of competing agendas that goes beyond street art’s mainstream popularity over the last 10 years.
What began as the easy political provocation and pop cultural appropriation of stencil art quickly became invigorated as it collided with the tribal aestheticism of graffiti culture. This strange amalgam found its strongest incarnation in Everfresh; a crew of seven core members whose varying styles came together out of a sense of camaraderie and a desire for fame. Since its formation in 2003 the Everfresh brand of masculine, neo-pop imagery has emanated from Fitzroy with the brash aggression of a teenage boy’s ghetto blaster. So unrelenting was their assault on the streets of Australia that the crew has established itself as a stand-alone authority in the world of street art. Its members are beholden to no institution except their own.
But as the initial craze of stencil art began to wane when confronted with the aesthetic dead ends of its mechanical process, artists like those of the Everfresh crew were able to draw energy from their graffiti roots that place an essential value upon skill and style. When the world of contemporary art had all but done away with the notion that an artist should actually make their own work, street artists were opting for freehand aerosol as a medium which relied on skills that couldn’t be faked.
More recently the importance of drawing has re-emerged as the cornerstone of image making in the practices of many street artists. Prominent among this trend are Miso and Ghost Patrol whose imagery finds resonance in its departure from the contemporary world. Rather than competing with popular culture like earlier forms of street art, these artists present a kind of passive nostalgia chic that offers relief from the realities of adulthood in the 21st century. More than empty escapism, such work attempts to revive the delicacies of craft that celebrate the value of an individual’s own labour. The deliberate fragility of their hand drawn paste-ups contrasts sharply with the city’s walls upon which they are sacrificed, revealing the hard truth of our absolute impermanence.
But the artist who has tied all these threads together with the most gusto is Anthony Lister. Famous for his depictions of superheros, Lister parodies popular culture’s enduring tendency towards idolatry in this secular age. He does this with a confidence that’s palpable well before the mechanics of his images are understood. But it’s Lister’s loose, figurative line work and touches of abstraction that connect his images to traditions of painting that require skill, intelligence and imagination. Like the work of Miso and Ghost Patrol it’s this ‘return to the hand’, in the words of Jaklyn Babington, which offers its audience the feeling of authenticity that it desires above all else.
It seems that half a century of postmodernism has created a hunger for authenticity so great that it has become the one uniting factor of a street art movement that’s often divided in every other facet. So what’s perhaps most pleasing about Space Invaders is its ethical consideration for an artistic movement that has, until now, thrived in its opposition to the status quo. In this sense, Space Invaders presents an observation of what’s happening outside the gallery walls and consciously avoids superseding the original medium of the street. Whether future surveys of Australian street art will be so conscientious we can only hope. But from an artistic movement that values ‘the real’ above all else, any museum that attempts to ‘own’ street art will be rightfully met with derision. As a medium that presents a direct link between artists and their audience, street art creates a type of artistic freedom that’s historically unprecedented and, if left unmolested, is just getting started.
- This article was originally published in the Melbourne Review, October 2011 -