Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Banksy's Cans Festival

Banksy is perhaps the world's most famous graffiti artist. He's notorious for putting well-timed, politically charged pieces in strategic locations. You can learn more about him here.

He organized an installation of paintings by some of the most influential and well-known street artists working today. It is in an abandoned tunnel/viaduct in South London, near the Waterloo train station. And, it's brilliant.

I went to the exhibit this past Sunday and was completely amazed by the technical quality of the work. To be completely honest, I was expecting a lot of tags and spray-painted nonsense that didn't do anything for me. But the reality is that today's street artists are practically reinventing Dada-ism and resurrecting the same qualities of collage that launched Cubism and modern art. Street art is nothing if not masterful appropriation, taking contemporary cultural cues and well-known visuals and subverting them to make new meanings and statements. Most of the work is completed with the creation and use of intricate stencils, lifting symbols and signs from daily life and imbuing them with (mostly) cultural criticism. The technical superiority of the pieces are simply stunning.

Another fascinating aspect of the work is its actual location. Because the work isn't created on a pristine blank canvas, the artist must take into account the walls, the pipes, and the other three-dimensional elements of the space - in addition to the texture and quality of the space itself. Working with, rather than against, the wall as a surface - instead of treating it as a backdrop - allows the artist to find more permanence and authenticity for the work. I saw an exhibit of street art, including pieces by Banksy, at the Brooklyn Museum nearly eighteen months ago; none of the work installed in the galleries even approached the level of intensity that the worst of the works here did. If nothing else, Banksy's Cans Festival provides an airtight case for seeing art in situ.

I took a ton of photographs of the pieces in the installation; you can see them here. I felt very weird about photographing the pieces I loved; my ease spoke to the underlying sense of appropriating visuals from one realm - everyday life, communication - for another - personal expression, cultural criticism. If we consider street art to be high art, legitimate and real, can any one of us "own" it? Should it be carefully preserved and hung in a museum for all to enjoy? Can any one of us use the photograph of the work to manipulate it for future artworks? Are these questions even valid? I think so; I think that by questioning the very essence of street art and its existence as a vehicle for social critique, it makes the medium stronger as a method.

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