Street Art: Lacunae
Meanwhile, onwards (the post follows as it was originally written).
My current obsession with street art has, I think, a lot to do with its ephemeral quality, its elusiveness, its temporariness (in the vast majority of cases), its constantly being under the threat of erasure – if you want to view that as a threat (I mostly do, but I think it’s a safe bet that many of these artists enjoy the ephemeral quality of the art). There’s something deeply appealing about an art form the transitory quality of which forces (“forces”) one to meticulously scan every possible inch of streets one would otherwise walk down indifferently … but then, obsession (a quality, imho, related to the appealing) has a lot to do with lack and wanting to fill it. As a byproduct of my academic work I have a tendency to see obsession everywhere (you might even say an obsessive tendency), but few art forms have made me so aware of obsessive readings being triggered in me. I want to build narratives out of nearly everything – I suspect most people do – and street art is no different. Why did X artist choose to place his/her work in such and such a place? Is the work a mash-up? If so, who are the different parts by, and how to do they work together to form a whole? If a work is a mash-up, or layered, what are the intentions behind the layering / mashing-up? (Yes, I’ve read my Barthes and I know intentionality is essentially an illusion, but that doesn’t keep me from wondering about it.) Does artist Y want to erase artist X, or add to artist X’s work, or what? Why does artist Y want to do such a thing?
And what gets erased, why, and by whom? What determines the various degrees of care with which things get erased? When is it a case of more random erasure (exposure/time making a paste-up peel off or paint fade, passers-by “vandalizing” the work, etc) and when is it more deliberate (someone deciding to paint over something, someone going to the trouble of chipping a Space Invader off a wall)? I get the random erasures a little more easily: weather is weather, time is time, and people like to “vandalize” things (vandalism possibly being a nature of art, if it has natures). I understand the deliberate erasures less, especially when they’re not complete erasures. Why paint over most of the “place au peuple” mash-up I discussed here, but leave visible most of the toctoc figure involved? (See my final ETA on that post for the relevant “after” photo.)
Take the above photographs of the masks. A couple of weeks ago the little courtyard on my street, such a haven for street art, was suddenly graced by a big mandala-like cluster of the elaborate paper masks I’ve posted in previous blog entries. (I still haven’t been able to figure out who the artist is, but Dots Paris has also recorded work by him/her.) This morning I went by it again and took the second photo posted above. Someone had been by and carefully removed most of the masks in the lower right quadrant and some in the lower left – at least, I’m assuming it was a deliberate human action, largely because the rest of the masks are in good shape. There’s no fresh paint; the pasted-up masks were peeled off with what, given the lack of damage to surrounding masks, looks like a significant amount of care. Why? What happened? Was it the artist him/herself? As my friend Lindsay points out, perhaps someone came along who wanted to keep the masks they liked – was that it? Was it someone who wished to contribute in some way by removing part of the original? Is the empty space in the mandala defined by masks the theoretical second person chose to leave up, or was the person interrupted in the process of taking them down? What is added, if anything, by the removal of these masks, by my knowing the masks were removed, by my possession (and now dissemination) of a photographic record of the original and the current versions? How does someone approach this piece who didn’t see the original and doesn’t know that blank spot was filled in? …is it in fact simply the case that the paste in this particular spot simply didn’t hold, and the masks fell off? (I didn’t see any on the ground.) What exactly about this is prompting me to ask these questions? Bueller?
I’ve already talked about the “censoring” of the toctoc-centered mash-up I mentioned (“place au peuple”), so I won’t talk about it specifically again, and far too many of the things I’ve posted images of on this blog are now partially or entirely gone for me to talk about them all. But a particular striking example of the temporary nature of street art was this rather lovely M. CHAT of Thoma Vuille’s, which graced la Rue de Charonne for a few days in November:
I happened to walk down Rue de Charonne several times in the space of about a week and simply got lucky when it came to spotting this cat. On November 21rst it was no more than a day or two old and I was very happy to see it, particularly since the large fresco of M. CHAT-with-flowers on my street (see my first street art post) had just disappeared after dominating the courtyard for several months. I was perhaps inordinately distressed when I went down Charonne again four or five days after the above photo was taken and discovered that this M. CHAT had also been painted over; it put me in a bad mood for a good hour, and it still makes me cranky when I think about it. The original was such a clean vivid bright moment of joy in an otherwise rather grubby, dingy little rain-covered street, and destroying it seemed/seems so pointless – such a sobering downer, even such a waste of paint or water – when, instead, the cat could have been allowed to fade over time. I just wrote “moment,” so even rhetorically I’m acknowledging that a moment is what that M. CHAT was – a fleeting moment of joy, not a monument, not something designed (or, realistically, intended) for permanence – but I can’t help wondering why the moment was ended / cut off / destroyed by deliberate action. What harm was M. CHAT doing by grinning there on the wall next to the fuse box (if that’s what these ubiquitous boxes are)? Does the concept of “harm” even come into the picture, necessarily? It doesn’t seem right to assume that the people painting over / getting rid of this art are actually seeing it as vandalism; maybe there are other reasons. After all, whoever painted over “place au peuple” left most of the toctoc figure intact – and a month later that toctoc figure is still there, unaccompanied.
Another thing I wonder / grit my teeth about are the spots where street art was clearly present once, but from which it is now gone. Because of its shape and placement (the height above street level etc), I’m certain this tiny bit of wall on la Rue de Charonne once held a Space Invader:
If I had a copy of Invader’s book I would check to make sure there was once a Space Invader here, but I’m going to go with my gut, particularly since I’ve seen Space Invaders people have partially destroyed (see here). My first reaction is: who would bother going to the trouble? Judging by the photo of the partially destroyed Space Invader on the page I just linked to, Invader uses cement that is strong enough to require your really tearing up the wall if you want to remove the tiles. Besides the fact that the image – as far as I’m concerned – is both charming and harmful to no one (seriously, Space Invaders aren’t even immediately obvious most of the time), you’re just replacing that image with an ugly torn-up spot on your wall. How is that better than Invader’s contribution…? Does it all just boil down to property? “This wall is my property, so you can’t glue your stuff here, and I’ll destroy my wall rather than let you?” I will admit that if I owned a wall (a problematic concept at the best of times but possibly even more so when you’re talking about an outside wall in a crowded city) — if I owned a wall and some street artist came along and pasted something I found aesthetically displeasing on it, I would, no doubt, want to get rid of that thing. I would not be particularly pleased, for instance, if Paddy came along and pasted one of his women-taking-selfies (see last post) on my house (I would be totally fine with his woman with a machine gun, though). I suppose on the most basic level I can’t grasp what might be so objectionable about the Space Invaders as to make removing one worth the time spent chipping it off and the resulting ugly patch of roughed-up wall. This not-empty empty spot, this trace of a Space Invader, still bothers me when I think about it or walk past it. It seems (among other things) like a deliberate attempt to take a bit of joy out of the world.
As I wrote then, the ripping away and tagging seem to add something here, or at least give “Dissection #1” an interesting new twist. I wondered briefly just now if what made this instance of destruction seem generative was the tagging rather than the ripping, but the tag wouldn’t look like it was being disgorged in the same way if the figure’s throat hadn’t been emphasized by the huge rip running down from the mouth. strategic ripping has been used (intentionally or not) to make more interesting the three “selfie” images by Paddy that I described in aforementioned last post and which I still won’t post for fear of violating WordPress’ standards with (gasp!) bare breasts. One of the figures is that of a woman wearing very little clothing whose few shreds of modesty are saved by a can of Fanta placed between her feet directly in front of her crotch. As of two weeks ago someone had ripped away part of the Fanta can, and as of this morning the entire Fanta can had been ripped away, leaving a large rip through the figure’s crotch. I hardly think I need to specify that this makes the image even more suggestive than it already was (well, maybe I do need to specify since I can’t post the image. Take my word for it… “suggestive” is actually too mild a word).
Sometimes I think the people who destroy/alter stuff just run out of steam. For instance:
Why bother going to the trouble of taking down the paste-ups by Le Soldat Inconnu and the Pope of Fat, as well as a couple of the masks, then resort to painting over the toctoc in a totally different color from that of the wall, and then stopping? I can believe the toctoc was just harder to take off (again because of the type of paste, perhaps), but most of the same questions I have about destroying Space Invaders pop up: why bother destroying something in such a way as to make your wall uglier than before? And here in particular it’s not as if we could possibly miss the fact that the paint is (not entirely adequately) covering a piece of graffiti/street art/what have you. And once you’ve shown yourself willing to paint out the toctoc, why not bother painting out the masks you haven’t taken off (or have been unable to take off)? These are all on the same bit of wall, so it can’t be a matter of the person doing the destroying only owning the few square feet that, say, the soldier was on, and therefore not caring about the rest of it. Is this a more awkward variant of what might have happened to “place au peuple” (which I would like to think was painted over by someone who couldn’t bring himself to entirely paint out the toctoc)? In other words, did the person who did this simply like the masks better, and thus decide to leave them mostly alone? Was there something offensive about the soldier or the fat lady figure or toctoc’s Freddy Krueger that the mask artist avoided? Did the person who pulled down and covered this up simply run out of time / get bored / etc?
But enough on this topic for now, I think, though I’m not done thinking about it. It’s the gaps in narratives that makes them so appealing; it’s the filling in of the spaces between elements. I think this works for visual art in a way fairly parallel to the way it works in textual art. I may be consciously annoyed or sad, even in some cases angry (sometimes quite angry) when I see that pieces I love(d) have been gotten rid of – I still resent the fact that “Paris Street Tart” was destroyed within a few days when Paddy’s selfies have been up now for weeks – but this temporariness is certainly part of what’s been interesting me enough about this art form, this ever-changing transitory reflection of a certain kind of life within the city, to inspire me to drag myself out of my apartment on walks when I have never enjoyed walking for its own sake.
Next time, I’ll post about new street art. And then I expect I’ll stop posting about street art, because, sadly, I’m leaving Paris in less than ten days and returning to Santa Cruz, where I’ve never noticed any street art. Maybe if I just look more carefully… (the blog will go on, still primarily concerned with French vs American culture, but from a US-based vantage point.)
Meanwhile I’ll leave you with the last verse of Robert Frost’s “Desert Places,” which I’ve had stuck in my head since I saw the empty space in the mandala:
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”