Tom Jennings' review of the graffiti art show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.
Postscripting the disappointing Spank The Monkey international street art and design extravanganza (see Freedom, 16th December 2006), thirteen local graffitists filled one floor of the Baltic for ten days with massive wall pieces, a thumping soundtrack, and a large van in the middle submerged in aerosol bodywork. Encompassing many popular styles, most were based on conventional building blocks – expanding and exploding graphic signatures (tags) to transcend the grey desolation of urban environments and experience with vibrant spraypaint dreamscapes, sexualised cartoon fantasies, and generally inventively troubling renunciations of the domesticated surfaces of institutions and egos. This 360-degree in-your-face sensory riot of colour and shape urged emotional immersion, making no concessions to ‘white cube’ architecture’s clinical bleaching out of passion in rarefied distance from the fragmented packaging of sanitised art.
These artists typically commit surreptitious ‘mindless vandalism’ rather than having everything laid on – and with several actively sought by the law for their exploits, the arms-length New Line Graffiti conferred anonmyity. This pragmatic necessity allowed several conventional artworld pomposities to be pleasingly traduced. The traditional ‘private view’ opening barred the usual worthy suspects in favour of a piss-up for artists, friends and families – who in turn comprehensively tagged the entrance. Having ascribed authorship to social networks rather than individual creative genius, the collective nature of the work was further emphasised by a speeded-up video projection in a side-room showing its convivial accomplishment. Despite the legendary competitiveness of the scene, the crucial role of successive overlayerings of rival tags as substrate and embellishment also makes explicit the sedimented history of sites and emphasises the ongoing rebellion of daring to claim expressive space.
Most of The ‘G’ Word contributors simulated a dirty, flaking, crumbling background for the monstrous beauty of their creations, suggesting that this was an exhibition about graffiti rather than the ‘real’ thing. But then it has no proper context, specifically perverting ‘official’ contours of geography, ownership and activity. Whereas illegal graffiti is only anti-social if the obscenities of modern capitalism represent an otherwise healthy urban garden sullied by such artistic weeds – and its subject matter routinely asserts otherwise, as in Zee TTK rendering the Tyneside skyline as simultaneously alien, exotic and toxic, or Inch adding architectural features to make sense of a dysfunctional gallery surface. So while bureaucrats and politicians inevitably bleat about providing opportunities for safe, legal locations for inoffensive muralism, the passionate determination and painstaking skill demonstrated here originated and developed precisely beyond the pale of polite society.
First published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007
for more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: