Street art like you've never seen it before
ADRIAN BURNHAM visits the Norwegian city of Stavanger, home of one of the world's greatest street art festivals, where even the surrounding fjords become a gallery
I need to get my eyes tested. I thought I'd just seen Igor Ponosov's work Too Far, Too Close (2017) at the brilliant Rise Up! Exhibition. I was chuckling to myself at the Russian artist's Dadaist Snellen Chart – an eyesight check-up that's 12 feet tall! – and blow me, a moment later the same chart sails past on the dark, choppy waters off Stavanger, Norway. Of course, both charts were part of the same project: a witty, thoughtful critique of the relationship between street-based artworks and its audiences. Ponosov wants the public to attend to their visual acuity, to question what they're seeing.
I shouldn't have been too surprised. Seeing art where you least expect it is part of the Nuart Festival's stock-in-trade. The boat with an eye test for its sail would bob on to pass by OILYGARCHY (2017), an incisive, giant floor piece painted on a redundant wharf by Portuguese artist ±maismenos±. And then from the deck you'd be able to make out Bahia Shehab's wall painting, a pixelated quotation from a poet of the Palestinian Resistance Movement, Mahmoud Darwish:
How wide is the revolution
How narrow is the journey
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Stavanger (population just 150,000) hosts one of the biggest street art festivals in the world. Although established initially as a music event in 2001, the festival director Martyn Reed nudged the focus towards street art in 2005. Since then there must have accrued over a thousand interventions on various of the town's surfaces. And because many of the works remain and are added to year on year, Stavanger is fast becoming an important repository, palimpsest of the various approaches to street art as it evolves with its many intentions and numerous guises.
The sheer range and quality of Nuart contributing artists in 2017 is mind-boggling. From, as I said, the brilliant, rabble rousing antics – working across video, sculptural installations, painting and performance – of ±maismenos± to the more playful figurative interventions of Nacho Nevado, aka Ampparito from Spain.
The latter's 30ft high 'concept mural', Part 1: Arms (2017), a trompe l'oeil image of a Playmobil character's broken limb appears on the side of a swanky building near the waterfront. Every year the festival puts a shout out to anyone in the town who wants to host an artwork. Ampparito's piece was inspired by the saying, 'The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins'. He could have referenced a more common version of the aphorism which has 'fists' instead of 'arms' but given the current international fission and acrimony…
Ampparito's creates metaphorically-charged renderings of everyday objects: a 40ft long blue, chewed Bic pen cap standing for social anxiety writ large; the fish lures as code for the distractions and pitfalls of our data strewn, click-bait culture; a serviette he painted in Walthamstow earlier this year bearing the words 'Gracias por su visita' as a beautifully understated comment on Brexit.
But, as if to demonstrate the alterity and particularly fluid, open-ended character of the Nuart Festival, Ampparito also made a suite of very different works: Part 2: Space (2017). For this he installed warning tape both in the Tou Scene exhibition 'tunnels' and around the city as a sort of empirical investigation into more or less visible barriers imposed on us by personal, social, physical and cultural boundaries.
Craftivist Carrie Reichardt from the UK contributed her particular brand of revolution. The anarcho-mosaicist installed an eco aware and human rights tile work: 'Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. […]' on steps in the town as well as running workshops for da youth, giving presentations and interviews, debating the pros and cons of evolution versus revolution with reference to street art and wider society. The Nuart Festival welcomes all comers but it's really not for the wishy-washy. Year on year Reed curates and his near-superhuman team of professionals and volunteers deliver a visual feast that entertains, challenges and pushes the envelope of street art in terms of both theory and practice.
Another work by Shehab saw the Egyptian historian and artist delve back 1,400 years into cultures under Arab or Islamic patronage – ranging from Spain to the borders of China – and from various artefacts collated a thousand versions of the word 'No' in Arabic script. In 2010 she exhibited A Thousand Times No as a book and wall installation piece in Munich, Germany.
As the initial optimism of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 faded and was followed by an even harsher regime of violence against citizens by the military government, the police and their agents, Shehab herself took to the streets and stencilled various of her 'No's coupled with a simple text or motif pointing to outrages that the state had visited on the Egyptian people.
When Shehab saw on her newsfeed images of people being dragged through the streets like garbage the artist turned visual activist. In Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo she sprayed her first stencil protest: an Arabic symbol for 'NO' plus the phrase 'To Military Rule'. Others works soon followed: 'NO To a New Pharoah'; 'NO To Blinding Heroes'; 'NO To Killing Men of Religion'; 'NO To Burning Books'; 'NO To Stripping The People'. This last again employs an Arabic symbol for 'NO' but this time it's coupled with the silhouette of a blue bra. For Shehab it is 'To remind us of our shame as a nation when we allow a veiled woman to be stripped and beaten on the street'. Underneath there's a 'footprint' again formed from Arabic script that reads 'Long Live A Peaceful Revolution'.
The utterly sickening sight of men in riot gear, wielding clubs and rods, surrounding a woman lying in the road with her abaya pulled up over her head so as to bare her chest, being mercilessly beaten and stamped on repeatedly is horrific in the extreme. Such atrocities galvanised anti-authoritarian support especially amongst the female population but, as we know, to this day the fight for human rights and democratic representation in Egypt still rages on. For the Rise Up exhibition at Nuart Shebab created a new iteration of her A Thousand Times No (2011 and ongoing) by stencilling on ten found doors.
The documentary Nefertiti's Daughters (2015) directed by Mark Nickolas focuses on female visual activism – including Shehab's work – received its Scandinavian premiere at Nuart Festival 2017. It's an incredibly moving story of women and interventionist art during the political uprising. It both documents and reflects on the critical role that street art played – and continues to play – in the yet-to-be-completed revolution in Egypt. If, like myself before visiting the festival, you haven't watched this film then do so.
In the last of Tou Scene's Rise Up! Exhibition 'tunnel' spaces there was work by the Berlin-based visual activist known as Vermibus – a name derived from the Latin for cadaver – and what he presents feels very much like a haunting entombment. Illuminated ad panels flicker on and off at the rear left hand side of the space. Walk a good 20 paces into the dark, black walled bunker-like void and you find yourself standing in front of two 6 Sheet display boxes featuring street adverts. A glamorous diptych you'd think. Except the usually glowing and flawless complexions of these pretty-faced perfume purveyors have been dissolved, manipulated using solvents, rags and sponges. The effect is visceral, violent and beautiful at the same time.
Vermibus takes existing advertising posters, manipulates them – sometimes the mark-making follows, accentuates the model's musculature while on other occasions flesh becomes patterned or is erased altogether, their clothing is largely untroubled – and then replaces the altered imagery back on the street. Sited in the urban environment, these works critique both consumer culture and regimes of standardised beauty. In the tunnels at Tou Scene a quite different effect occurs. The white, glowing JCDecaux frames themselves become more of the focus. As if these were the remnants of a consumer culture that's been overthrown. Be that via a re-envisioning of our urban environments or some sort of devastation due to climate change? Who knows what's around the corner? But here, in a flickering mausoleum, the last two ads are preserved. As a remnant, folly, warning…
Dialogue regarding issues of contestation and the power of various forms of street art and advertising in towns and cities featured prominently in a series of artists' talks, panel debates, workshops, round table discussions and academic presentations for Nuart Plus.
Javier Abarca, an artist, educator and researcher from Madrid contrasted human-scale street art interventions with Muralism. The latter being where commissioned street art muralists, often global stars, are parachuted into festival sites, towns and cities with which they may have no pre-existing connection to produce colossal images on buildings.
For Abarca this is a far cry from the radical roots of street art. The giant-sized murals, he argues, are part of the controlling environment, like outdoor advertising. Whereas oppositional street art and graffiti is about working freely with urban contexts, ignoring the limits of property and transgressing markers of economic, social and civic containment.
Giant murals, Abarca argued, are single sites of, let's face it, more often than not corporate and/or council sponsored shock and awe. This is imagery that confirms the status quo and doesn't ask questions but affirms the logic of money. The necessarily smaller, more human-scale interventions that are often scattered throughout a town or city afford a more engaging and active experience. Stavanger offers this up in spades. The viewer comes to know these works through multiple encounters. They are woven into the town's fabric and promote an active experience of space and place, whereas murals are static, forced on passersby who are made passive by being confronted with these albeit spectacular artworks sited in predictable places of power.
Esteemed art writer and curator Carlo McCormick thought that panning the muralists was a bit harsh – after all, some of his best friends were muralists – but this dichotomy was one of many topics on the table to be investigated, critiqued and argued over. McCormick's own presentation was a whistle-stop tour of street and fine artists, historical and contemporary, whose practice involved the use of and were inspired by dereliction and urban detritus.
One minute he'd be referencing the efforts of early conceptual artists inspired by the 'wastelands of social abandonment so fecund for growing culture' from the late 1960s and 1970s – McCormick has the added advantage of having known most of the artists he writes and talks about – such as Agnes Denes, whose Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) saw her plant the incongruous arable crop on two acres of New York's landfill that was to later become Battery Park City. This 'greening' of the Big Apple is now recognised as one of the most powerful urban interventions in the history of land/conceptual art.
McCormick also referenced Gordon Matta-Clark and others for whom the rundown, abandoned, outlaw areas of town were occasion for and spurs to creativity. Nuart 2017 and the efforts of previous generations of artists bound up with and inspired by urban landscape were knitted together by McCormick such as when he drew parallels between Matta-Clark's 'anarchitecture', his holing, splitting, deconstruction of domestic and industrial architecture with the work of contemporary artist and current Nuart participant Ian Strange.
This Australian-born, currently US-based artist was formerly known as Kid Zoom and dubbed Rembrandt with a spray can by the legend of subversive street art, Ron English. Nowadays Strange's practice includes incredibly ambitious multi-faceted projects resulting in: site-specific interventions, photography, film, documentary works and installation. His works at Stavanger, displayed throughout the town's streets, sited on interzones along the waterfront and exhibited at Tou Scene, follow two years pursuing a project called Suburban.
This has seen the artist touring the East Coast of the US painting directly onto suburban homes, even in some cases burning them down and documenting the results using film and photography. His painted target-like circles and crosses on clapboard and brick edifices amount to obliterations and reductions of these potent icons of the 'American dream': undoing and questioning their power as symbols of hearth and home, family life, safety until they are transformed, reduced to corrupted objects that provoke feelings of discomfort and alienation.
I wanted to talk more about Addam Yekutieli, aka Know How from Israel, whose striking and idiosyncratic street art practice is now developing into a more ephemeral, socially-engaged place-making: an enfolding of the personal and political to produce subtle images whose meanings can shift over time.
There was stunning work by Ricky Lee Gordon from South Africa, his installation for Rise Up! was mesmeric. As was watching Slava Ptrk work on his giant passport page: another brilliant (and annoyingly young) artist.
Then how could I not mention the legend that is John Fekner from the US? A man who was spraypainting the five boroughs of New York in the 1970s and who continues to make text works in the street that deftly address environmental and social issues.
I eavesdropped on a chat Fekner had with Derek Mawudoku, from the UK, and the patient dialogue that ensued, the willingness of both of them to engage critically but empathetically and productively with each other's work – work that on the surface seems at opposite extremes of the visual art spectrum – was a masterclass in informed curiosity and sensitive perception. An example of what's so utterly impressive about Nuart: yes, it brightens the city, it puts Stavanger on the map for something other than fish, gas and oil but most of all it's an opportunity to share, explore and enact art and ideas that, as festival director Martyn Reed puts it, 'positively change, enhance and inform the way we think about and interact with each other and the city'.
The Nuart Festival 2017 and Rise Up! Exhibition is on at Tou Scene and throughout Stavanger, Norway until October 15.
Adrian Burnham writes on art and urban culture. He is founder and curator of www.flyingleaps.co.uk, a street poster and web platform. Email: email@example.com
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