Giant leviathans have dunked their claws into thick chemical pigment, and have traversed, torn, bombed the walls of Boulevard Raspail in the 14th arrondissement in Paris, scaling the glass rims of Fondation Cartier and its neighbouring walls, parking lots, garbage bins, lamp posts and benches…
Or so it seems, until you inch closer and detect language and empathetic human voices in these markings. The Born in the Streets graffiti show at the Fondation Cartier attempts, extrinsically as well as in content, to illuminate the guerrilla world of graffiti as an art form that has, literally and figuratively, been created in and subjugated to darkness for decades.
Conscious of the irony in transporting an inherently ephemeral, public and illegal art form into the safety and permanence of the white walls of an institution, the Fondation Cartier melts its own boundaries of systematic space. The curators have developed a show that exposes the days and lives of graffiti artists through museum-like techniques of two dimensional canvases, informative excerpts, signage, videos, glass displays of aerosol cans and writing instruments. Additionally, the Fondtaion's exterior spaces and outside wall have been given over to a rotating mix of writers and artists. It is an exhibition that bleeds past the contained, pristine walls out into the world.
Walking into the underground space that contains the restroom, the walls seem to close in on us and another ambience takes over- full and bursting with expressionist, loud, vivid, energetic writings all over the ceiling, the side walls, the floor, this public area becomes a claimed space, burning with color, text, image from end to end, subverting the pre-existing aesthetic order. I tense up and step further, the lines between painting, installation, performance and life blur. Once in the refuge of the lavatory, I couldn't help but feel suffocated by the intensity and weight of all the writing. Perhaps this experience is similar to the quenching feeling for those people/artists who have been marginalized, made to feel uncomfortable or outside the boundaries of mainstream society, and turn towards graffiti to express their outrage, defiance, or borderlessness. The dimly lit basement atmosphere adds to the feeling of somehow being below or beyond the system, and one can’t help imagining—even yearn for—the neat blankness of the otherwise bare walls.
I turn on the tap, wash my hands, splash water on my face, and hurry out. I am a part of it, now.
The exhibiton does not appear to judge or attempt to analyze the movement; it simply charts the physical process of graffiti writing as well as provides a history of its conception and execution. From film and video footage to all sorts of photo-documentation, this exhibition provides a Graffiti 101 to its viewers. And it is popular! On the Sunday that I visited, the show was packed with people from all walks of life: older professionals, couples, skateboarders, hip teenagers, graffiti artists, regular artists, and non-artists, perhaps even those who pull the wool over their eyes with respect to graffiti as art. Each one, however, looks affected by the stars and arrows and alphabets that swarm throughout the space. The glass outside displays neatly and deliberately written vowels, in all forms of writing—Softie, Block, Wild, Computer rock, Whole car—as is explained in the exhibit. One becomes familiarized with graffiti terms, such as ‘tags’, ‘toy’, ‘hit’, ‘burn’, ‘cap’, and initiated in this close-knit community and its language. Whether voluntarily or not, these artists work on the margins of society, marking territory as ghost writers, staking their voice anywhere and everywhere that screams and echoes.
I left the exhibit filled with a sense of revolution, of rebellion, of time and space. Outside I noticed young boys and girls on bicycles pausing to write on nearby walls. There is an urge to walk over and stop them; but the glee on their faces, the new individuality, their cracked voices prevented me. This is mark-making at its purest, its most subversive.
And in the end, I am left searching for my own signature curve, my own spinning humanity within a system of straight white lines and perfect right angles.
~Himali Singh Soin
(Images: Courtesy of the artists and Fondation Cartier)