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A Street Art Exhibition | Tim Woodward

Writing below the title A Street Art Exhibition, I find an instant urge to regress. To say, ‘well not really but yes and let me explain’. Because with equal concern for those who love or loathe what is commonly described as Street Art (think Britain’s Banksy or American propaganda machine Shepard Fairey) this title could either keep you away from Boxcopy for a few weeks, or possibly now have you walking disappointedly out the door. Featuring video and object based works by Brisbane based artists Chris Bennie and Shaun O’Connor, Swiss collective Körner Union, and Melbourne artist Melanie Upton, I trust in both cases these concerns are largely unfounded.

A Street Art Exhibition attempts to locate a range of negotiations taking place between contemporary artists, their work, and the street. Renovating a term increasingly defined through accepted representations of graffiti culture, this exhibition shows evidence of artists continuing to reevaluate an engagement between art and the street in a manner separated from the popular vernacular. Recognising the street environment as spatial and temporal, here its definition is not limited to the city or the urban, although it does encompass these terrains. The artists engage with footpaths, roads, highways, freeways, expressways and motorways, identifying the street as a complex social site as well as a stretch of grey tarmac for cars to drive along.

Capturing a playfully abrasive act of motorist self amusement, Körner Union’s Lausanne-morges presents a humorous solution to commuter boredom. The work consists of a fixed camera shot angled down onto the highway from the dashboard of a moving vehicle. Following the steady floodlit surface, the driver (centered between two lanes) ‘honks’ the car horn to a made up tune. Generally the highway is a non-specific realm, a routine landscape of unmarked public-ness. Not a location in its own right, the highway is therefore typically received by the motorist as one continuous transitional space – a vague temporality. Within this work we have little to reference visually, however, audibly Körner Union marks a very human presence onto this bleak terrain. Failed attempts to repeat a ‘honked’ tune disrupt our semivirtual encounter with the landscape. It’s as though this irritating exercise is an effort to dissipate the regulated reality of the road ahead.

Taking up a similar position in relation to the shifting landscape, Bennie’s When The Rain Comes generates a considerably different atmosphere. At times almost floating above the bitumen of a dark grey road, this video work instills a sense of nostalgia, evoking the journey of a road tripper or holiday traveler. A distance between interior and exterior space is heightened through our experience of the car as a capsule closed off from the elements. There is something familiar and comforting about this, particularly as the title could be suggesting more rain is on its way. Time on the highway is experienced as duration rather than chronology. This is commonly expressed with the phrase ‘drive time’. Likewise chronology holds no currency in Bennie’s work, and an awareness of duration and time is foregrounded by the squeaky rhythm of a widescreen wiper, coupled with the crackle of something uncertain.

Interested in the signifying material of the urban, O’Connor recognises this environment as a site of varied and conflicting intensions. Often focusing on how the demands of a generalised urbanism are privileged over the lives and needs of a city’s inhabitants, O’Connor engages with the fringe activities of the street. Alleviating thematic heaviness with a playful transformation of toy skateboards, O’Connor acknowledges skateboarding as the classic example of unproductive (and therefore largely unacceptable) street use. Sitting principally outside the goals and desires of capital, the skateboarder makes use of the street without adding to its value. Perhaps coupling this with a perception of the artist (paint tube) and hoodlum (switch blade), O’Connor understands the prevailing protocols and restrictive order of public space.

Also focusing on the city outcast, O’Connor’s video work Untitled (hoodie) documents a sidewalk vagrant, pencil in hand, hunched over a book of loose leaf. Here we view the attentive production of something (could this be street art?) laid out on what looks to be the pavement.

Another artist working with objects, Upton casts rubbish directly sourced from amongst the decay and spoil of the streets. Taking in the trash, Upton salvages those ‘exhausted objects’ that accumulate within the cracks and corners, gutters and storm water drains. Cigarette packets, fast food packaging, beer bottles – a dead rodent. On the street this kind of refuse is readily pushed out of the way of both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Upton’s sculptural practice often engages with the details of exhibition spaces, making installation choices by following a similar language of displacement. Cast in plasticine and aluminum, her works are beaten into the architecture or trodden into the ground.

This is a street art exhibition undoubtedly, but because it is so many other things at the same time, to call it such seems unfair by association. Each artist understands this landscape as an immoderate and multifaceted setting for human activity, developing far more complex engagements than the typical street artist who recognises their surroundings primarily as a blank canvas. Concentrating more on how the street is experienced, A Street Art Exhibition shows artists responding to public space in a range of resourceful and tactical ways.

by Tim Woodward

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