Monday, February 28, 2011

The Dumpster Biennale


20th February 2011
Magazine Gallery, Adelaide


It’s fun to satirise contemporary art. There’s something about the self obsessed way in which it constantly questions its own value that makes you wish it would just cheer up and salvage a little dignity? So what better force to kick contemporary art in the pants than the affable enigma that is street art?

Based around the unique concept of mailing out replica-wooded dumpsters for street artists to customise, the Dumpster Biennale has quickly gained a reputation beyond our shores. This year the exhibition features dumpsters from 30 international, national and local artists.

“We needed an object that was internationally recognisable,” says their designer Timothy Grisbrook about shoebox-sized creations. “The dumpster seemed a perfect choice because it confronts our notion of what makes an object valuable. Even worthless objects can become valuable through the skills and imagination of an artist.”

The exhibition is the main event of this year’s Street Dreams festival, which is dedicated to celebrating all things ‘street art.’ Run by local volunteers during the Fringe, the festival includes street art tours, exhibitions, mural painting and technical workshops. It’s part of a long-term vision to develop the local appreciation of street art and build connections between artists nationally and internationally.

I asked Adelaide based street artist Ankles what he thought of moving street art into the gallery. “We’ve turned dumpsters into objects that are of value. Whether or not it’s labelled ‘art’ is kind of boring - that word doesn’t hold much value to me,” he replied. “Street art doesn’t need art galleries, it’s the other way around.”

Maybe he’s got a point. While blockbuster exhibitions of European masters will always attract the grey tide they also come at a steep cost. Street art exhibitions, like The Nation Gallery’s show titled ‘Space Invaders’, are comparatively cheap to put on. For the big galleries It’s a smart way of securing the loyalty of a younger audience who’s patronage will extend far into the 21st Century. It’s also a way of favouring home grown culture instead of pandering to archaic notions of euro centric cultural dominance.

But the real appeal of street art is something much simpler - it’s the allure of authenticity. There’s something in that image of the street artist as outlaw-rebel that offers some welcomed relief from the tired pretences of the contemporary art establishment. After all, leading contemporary artists need buckets of diamonds, dozens of skilled technicians and intimidating galleries to make their creations seem valuable. The humble street artist can perform the same feat using their own skills, the cheapest of materials and an ordinary wall or even a dumpster. Refreshing, isn’t it.

First published in The Adelaide Review, Feb 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Street Art Diaries


Making street art is easily the healthiest addiction I’ve ever had. Like most
addictions, making street art only really endangers the individual and
offers virtually nothing in terms of personal gain. On the up side, there’s
an indescribably rewarding feeling that comes from giving anonymously and
climbing things does keep you quite fit.

However, as I discovered whilst honeymooning in Berlin, even the best of
addictions can become troublesome, given the right circumstances. The
trouble began with the fact that Berlin is to street artists what Las Vegas
is to problem gamblers. All the best have graced the wall of the German
capital and the joy of discovering their gifts is only matched by the joy of
leaving your own.

Often I was struck with disbelief as I came face to face with the original
of an image I’d seen reproduced countless times before. The experience,
often described as the aura of the original, is exactly the same as one
experiences when confronted by a famous painting. I set about collecting
this experience with a ravenous appetite.

But the impulse to collect only fuelled the desire to create and before long
I had lapsed, leaving a trail of stencils, paste-ups and pieces from
Kreuzberg to Mitte. Some of my work would be painted over in a matter of
days by the next artist to make their contribution to the ever-changing
wallpaper of the streets. In Berlin, it seems, change is quick, relentless
and it arrives without permission.

I never once felt in danger. In fact, my wife’s tolerance of my habit seemed
more heroic than my own efforts. In this sense, Berlin is an incredibly
liberal, friendly place and the greatest threat I encountered was an excess
of curiosity from passers by. Tourists posed for pictures and other artists
stopped to exchange details. Hostility seemed out of the question.

London was different. At first I was shocked by the mass of CCTV that covers
the cityscape with discomforting ubiquity. However, I soon found myself
inspired that, despite London’s Orwellian designs, amazing street art
prevails. Suddenly Banksy’s feats seemed all the more astounding and I went
in search of his work so that I might learn from the master. Noticing that
many of his remaining pieces were placed well above street level I set about
following his example.

Of course there were moments that I asked myself “why am I sticking up this
poster on this ugly Shoreditch rooftop? Surely I should be gawking at Big
Ben or queuing for the London Eye? Shouldn’t I have grown out of climbing
things?”

The truth is that climbing things never stops being fun. In fact, the more
aware you become of the pointlessness of climbing things, the more fun it
becomes. It’s a great metaphor for ambition in that there’s no meaning to it
beyond the pleasure of striving. All street art, whether it involves
climbing or not, captures that poetic sense of pointless striving by the
very fact that it’s impermanence is assured.

With its inevitable destruction, every piece of street art achieves its
transition into history and is, at last, complete. Finally, all that remains
are photos that circulate the Internet. Some of Banksy’s most recognisable
images only lasted on a wall for a number of hours but they’ll exist forever
online.

Of course other pieces by the world’s most famous street artist have become
tourist attractions that city councils protect from further vandalism. On one
such piece I spotted a fake council notice that had been stencilled on the
wall by another artist “Vandals caught vandalising this vandalism will be
prosecuted.” ‘Good point’ I thought and promptly added a stencil of my own.