Graffiti had its day? Oh I hope not…

10 Nov

On another of my visits to the Tate Modern to see what new and expensive nonsense has filled the Turbine Hall, I took time out to check the toilet facilities which had provided so much fun the last time I popped  in(Strangers at the Tate Modern – May 2014).

My initial surprise and mild delight at the toilet ‘makeover’ soon gave way to misgivings. The place has been Tate Modernised. Black mosaic-style tiling shimmers in the sodium lighting; Armitage Shanks porcelain urinals have been replaced by a manufacturer I can’t remember. And even the Dyson Airblade has gone. Two sparkling patent-busting lookalikes called Jetfly have replaced the single Dyson blaster. The place was spotless. Jed had cleaned it ten minutes earlier. The wall-chart listed the hourly hygiene checks. There were flickering gadgets on the ceiling which might have been smoke detectors but more likely big brother surveillance. The mass of mirrors encouraged the thought of a surreal theme park. Worst of all, no sign of graffiti.

On my last visit I had delighted in the scrawled messages in my cubicle and the problems of scalding water and a sad, lonely single hand-drier. This time, nothing to report, so the Turbine exhibition had to lift my spirits. And so it did. Araham Cruzvillegas – a name that is bannered in neon-orange outside the gallery – has produced triangular wooden soil-filled boxes on scaffolding gantries all over the vast Turbine floor. A few feet in length and shaped like a wedge of brie, the receptacles house earth from three parks in Enfield. This preposterous idea is made even better by the ‘living sculpture’ being the Mexican artist’s attempt at ‘guerilla gardening’. In other words Abe hopes that visitors might toss seeds on to the hundreds of soilbeds – or that whatever organic matter is already there might flourish under the powerful arc lights. He links the cultivation of unloved plots in the teeming suburbs of Mexico City, with our allotment and park culture.

After several moments of feeling the ludicrousness of the whole thing, I started to smile. Apart from anything else I like triangles. Then, why Enfield? Then I saw a small girl tipping an envelope of seeds over the balcony. A few weeds have already appeared but, like graffiti, even they look quite good. Indeed it’s nice to see a bit of incipient green while brown mud dominates. The Hyundai Corporation commissioned the installation, hoping, perhaps, that artistic altruism might help sales of their diesel range. I’m being cynical – at least they are making a contribution. I look forward to Nike doing the same next year. Back to graffiti.

The street art of Pompeii reminds us of the timeless art of graffiti. Man seems to have scratched messages or pictures on trees, in caves and on walls since we had trees and caves and walls. My desk in the first form at secondary school (1962) had the compass gougings of previous generations preserved by annual coats of varnish. As custodian of the contraption for the year I delighted in adding my own clever witticism: Sorro wuz here, ’62.

Desks were chucked onto skips years ago. Laminate tables and plastic seats are the unimaginative order of the day. Woe betide the youngster who gets out his felt tip or sharp instrument  – compasses having been banned as lethal weapons by health and safety/risk assessors some time ago – to leave his mark, his genius. Of course defacement, vandalism, eyesore and criminal damage are terms central to the vocabulary of detractors. There is a time and a place ..and intention. There is also expression, freedom of speech, story-telling, art. God alone knows what the balance is.

Banksy and his like have reignited debates about acceptability and appropriateness. We love the anti-establishmentarianism of it all. Google Graffiti and you’ll find that the Wikipedia page on it is really interesting – and extensive. I learnt a lot! See the picture that I took on the station at Herculaneum. Lovers with graffiti and wet washing backdrop.  Somehow it works, doesn’t it?

176We moved on from the Tate and ended up watching skateboarders at the South Bank, where the graffiti/street art is inimical and strangely equal to the more formal culture of the area – National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, Festival Hall and all that.

I still moan about senseless scrawling on newly painted walls but witticisms on pub toilet walls, Tate Modern toilets and the brothels of Pompeii make me titter.

Sorro wuz here, 2015.



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