Fear not! There's a meme for everything...even when there's no funding for the arts. Hello George Brandis.
My old stomping ground in Rome, Torpignattara is fast becoming an open street art museum. One of the most notable additions is this mural in dedication to Pasolini, whose connection to the area was documented by its inclusion in classics like Mamma Roma. These days the Torpigna quarter as its affectionately known, has one of the highest concentrations of migrants in all of Europe. More on that soon.
Mariah Carey's Vegas "residency" already subject to cancellations (bronchitis?), but never mind, there's a new match.com inspired video to tide her lambs over with. We live in a time when product placement is just the norm.
Speaking of...had a nice and disturbing chat with someone involved with the documentary Europe for Sale which looks at the current trend of selling of public heritage to private corporations. More on that soon, but the link will take you to the trailer for the documentary which looks at the absurdity of this type of quest for monetizing public spaces and public goods.
A long, long time ago, I posted about moves to protect the public mural in Melbourne by Keith Haring. That was back in 2010. Today, I happened to be doing some flicking around the net, and I came across this update in a Melbourne GLBT mag as well as a friend of mine in the society pages (again. He is always in there!).
It seems at least that Arts Victoria and Heritage Victoria are onboard and that surrounding redevelopment of the site is being done in a way in which the dignity of Keith's artwork is at least being maintained. Apparently there's a plan in the works people to help protect a bit of old skool street art.
Back in 2003, Banksy made his way to Melbourne, arguably around the time that the stencil scene there was beginning to organically peak before it developed into a mini cottage industry.
Banksy's trip to Melbourne occured at a time when Melbournians still viewed stencil art as a pesky disadvantage of their climate and of city life, long before its value was appreciated by a wider audience. Banksy has since been recognised as a bit of a genius, and where years ago people used to get up in arms about stencil art in public spaces, today people are getting up in arms because not enough is being done to protect the more infamous and better executed works. If you trawl the internets then undoubtedly you would have come across the mini media storm that a plumber generated by drilling into one of Banksy's rats. Does it count as a case of veternary science?
Melbourne has made the mistake before both intentionally and unintentionally.
Part of the problem is that we still equate value with the economics of street art. Street art is not as Melbourne City Council and the like believe, about maintaining an outdoor museum to perpetuate the big names of the scene and to capitalize on tourism; thats a happy byproduct; its about encouraging and protecting a different form of social engagement. which is often witty and visually stimulating. As with everything in the public domain, there are issues to overcome, including issues about property rights, but, its not rocket science. The latest incident is a case that could have been easily avoided, and instead it turned into an embarrassment for all involved, and a great loss to the community, because those rats enrinched their environment. They weren't merely scavengers.
Travel anywhere in Italy and you are likely to be bombarded with Catholic iconography of all sorts. Icons can be found on street corners, in front of apartment buildings, in advertisements and free flyers for music and aperitif events...anywhere really.
I love a good spin on the classics, especially when things are done with tongue in cheek.
As someone who grew up outside of Italy, I have a sense of detatchment about the iconography and the church. I studied art history at university and can marvel at the beauty of art and architecture which was created in line with religious purposes and idealogy, but that is where I draw the line.
In Italy, Italians aren't as religious as the world would have you believe. It's just that the ubiquity of imagery, centuries of tradition and the looming influence of the Vatican continue to hold what is ostensibly a political hold over the country.
A recent furore here erupted with the widely publicised ''news'' that the Vatican, even during these times of financial crisis, receives tax breaks and benefits that estimates amount to up to 3 billion euro per year. This is largely because as a ''non commercial'' entity it is free from taxation. Sounds good in principle, but the non commercial business activities go far and beyond what one might expect from a religious organisation; beyond the schools, churches and clinics, a little searching will reveal that the Vatican's fortune comes largely from revenue deriven from commercial leases of its extensive real estate portfolio; retail stores, apartment complexes, hotels...all of which are done tax free.
There is a resentment that the Vatican profits from a portion of what taxes Italians actually do pay, especially when the Vatican is seen to use its economic and social might to help control and steer government policy in the same way that Conservative groups do throughout the Western World.
How this will turn out, no one knows. A rather brilliant editorial piece in recent days spelt out the machinations of the government's current approach to its economic woes. When commerce and spirituality meet, things usually get ugly, same for when they collide with government.
Thank God (sorry), that we always have the stand alone nature of icononography to fall back on.
I have been known to really struggle with certain aspects of Rome, and I often wear my complaints on my sleeve, especially in relation to the way in which people comport themselves in this city.
But on the other hand, one thing that continually captivates me about this city is not so much its glorious history, but more its extremely layered and complicated history, the physical manifestations of which are often stacked one layer atop the other. It's mesmerising and inspiring to find yourself living in a city where medieval sits side by side with classical and contemporary, giving the city its unique identity. In a way, its like living at an archeological dig site, where you are constantly considering the people who were here before you, the fleeting nature of human life and the legacies that we leave to future generations. I know that sounds a little corny, but I can't think of any other city in the world where this sensation is so evident, as if every street has an older story under its wobbly surface in contrast to its present day existence.
One of the inspiring things about Rome 2011, is that you can see that it is a city that, with a fair bit of punching and screaming, is trying to push its way forward, out of the shadows of other European cities who are seemingly more at ease with the 21st century. New layers are constantly being added to the city; some complex, some monumental, and others, subtle, a little hidden and a welcome surprise.
Last year, Space Invader, supported by a gallery in my hood, the WunderkammernWunderkammern, carried out a residency in Rome, adding his little touches to some of the city's oldest (and, occasionally, ugliest) parts. One of my joys was, heading home along the Casalina (lets just call it a brutal thoroughfare) on my scooter and zooming by one of his hard to spot works. Imagine my utter sadness when I noticed it had 'disappeared'. :( Space Invader's plaques were at a certain point ubiquitous throughout the city. In fact, a google map created by his supporters locates not only his little mosaic masterpieces that continue to stick to their old and crumbling supports and those that are no longer with us, but those that were also put up in imitation. The list on the official website, is reasonally up to date, and, worldwide, but oddly enough doesn't seem to incorporate his Roman stay. That said, Australians in particular might be interested to hunt down the old stock image on the map to see how utterly brilliant his initiative can often be. For the more photographically minded, head to Flickr instead to see just how widespread the infestation has been.
As for the disappearing act that seems to be becoming more and more widespread in Rome, I expect to see some of these little masterpieces springing up soon at Porta Portese or some of the other black markets. Unfortunately, this is one of the selfish behaviors of locals that from time to time make me want to throw my hands up in the air and moan about. :(
Before taking on an international persona of their own, the works of Keith Haring were once indelibly linked with the evolving graf inspired street culture of early eighties NYC.
Often bright, sparse and almost childlike in their urgency, there was something about their appeal which seemed to transcend the limitations of their basic line structures. Eventually, they would go on to enjoy mass universal appeal, on the basis of the accessible way in which the images seemed to reduce the major stages of life down into decodable and distinctly Haring shapes, such as the Radiant baby. Haring's characters were affectionate and powerful drawings that appealed to the eye whilst also addressing major life themes of love and sex, birth and death, and to a lesser extent, social warfare.
Haring, to my mind, was one of the first public faces of the AIDS epidemic that seemed to otherwise haunt the atmosphere of popular culture in the eighties and nineties. Diagnosed in 1988, he never shied away from the opportunity to raise awareness and to educate the fear out of the younger generations, despite being in the front line of one of modern life's most horrific syndromes. He founded the Keith Haring Foundation only in 1989, but by the time of his untimely death in 1990 from complications arising from AIDS, his imagery was already becoming synonymous with AIDS and HIV related charities due to the work of his foundation.
His artwork also graced record covers, including the 1987 compilation 'A Very Special Christmas' which benefitted the Special Olympics, on which we saw the Madonna and child in trademark Haring style. His imagery was also licensed to the Red Hot organisation, who used Haring's images on their 'Red Hot and Dance' compilation of 1992, featuring George Michael and Madonna.
His journey towards fame and success seemed to coincide with that of Madonna's, a friend for whom he sometimes produced work, and who in turn dedicated a fund raising show to him during the NYC leg of her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, subsequently documented in her Truth Or Dare/In Bed With Madonna movie of 1991.
Starting out as a tagger, even from the earliest periods of his career he never let mediums constrain him, working on small and large scales and in both 2D and 3D media.
The fun, irreverency and urgency of Haring's images seemed to change significance over time, more and more coming to represent modern day images of compassion, especially after the passing of his life.
Even before his death he was considered a significant contemporary artist, and to some of us, was as important to contemporary art as Warhol had been to the pop art movement.
His significance led to him being commissioned to produce public art pieces in various parts of the world as Italy and Australia. In Australia, a visit in the mid 1980s resulted in a mural being produced for the now former Collingwood Technical College building in Melbourne, an image of which is located here: (http://images.smh.com.au/2010/01/14/1038843/wbTOTEwall-600x400.jpg).
Unfortunately, the momentum which led to Haring's production of the mural with the aid of Collingwood Tech students was lost soon after, and the mural has been left to deteriorate since being produced in 1984.
Now, a growing movement (for which a Facebook page has been created: (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=wall&ref=ss#!/group.php?gid=117064188315110&v=info&ref=ss) is seeking to redress this, raising questions along the way as to the best way in which to conserve the mural for future generations, in addition to seeking public and financial support to facilitate any conservation work.
The mural in its current state is in such a state that it needs restoration, an idea which some supporters find disturbing. To my mind, leaving and merely preserving the mural in its currently faded state is disrespectful to the legacy of Keith Haring, and also speaks of a problem that many countries have in maintaining their public art.
In Australia it seems, little is done in the way of preserving public art works for future generations. That the Keith Haring Foundation is on hand to offer guidance in addition to the technical skill set available in Melbourne seems like a no-brainer to me, however it doesn't seem that straightforward in Melbourne at the moment (http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2010/04/28/2884980.htm), where support is still being garnered and media coverage of the issue still sparse.
Its amazing to consider that an artwork produced for the public by an artist of Haring's calibre, in a country as unpopulated as Australia would have been left to deteriorate in the way it has been, particularly with its location in the nexus of Melbourne's artworld. Even more distubring still, is the debate as to how and if to proceed in its restoration. But, in many ways, Melbourne has a hit and miss, and occasionally, disgraceful track record with public art, which is surprising given how much cultural capital contributes to the city's identity (not to say its economy). There have been too many instances recorded where public pieces have been collected and left to deteriorate in council storage yards, occassionally re-sold to other municipalities, but mostly left to weather outdoors.
Perhaps, my being in central Italy these days, with its abundance of public buildings, artworks and areas, most of which have been well restored and maintained, has made me cynical towards the reasons behind the travesty of this situation that has befallen Haring's Melbourne mural.
In recent days, I've seen the Sistine Chapel (restored in the face of great controversy in the 1990s), the now-UNESCO listed medieval city of Siena, the Colosseum (which potentially will be partially obscured by scaffolding this year in its upteenth clean up) and lesser known structures and artworks such as that in the attached image, located in Rome, near my work, which is currently undergoing repair and restoration.
The reason I name check all of these places is not to brag at how fortunate I am to be in proximity to these things, and in the position to visit them at my leisure, but instead to point out that even if the original paint pigments are no longer always visible; even if the original structural material is now augmented by modern day techniques and matters, the spirit of the originals is still most definitely present, and leaves the viewer not with a wistful sadness as to not having been able to truly witness the original, but instead a feeling of wonderment that in the most powerful pieces of art, the divine and the physical are right there for our taking.
In turn, this continues the cycle of an artwork or monument which, was theoretically, once wanted because it had been commissioned, and is still loved because it has been diligently cared for. Keeping art alive is the responsibility of everyone, and in the case of Haring's mural, his trademark vibrancy, and lively approach to line need to be resurrected for the longterm, not merely mismanaged until there is no point of return.
For all the protestations that it is not the case, the reality is that in many areas, Italy remains a deeply conservative nation.
When it comes to contemporary art, and modes of thinking, it can seem as if the tremendous legacy of Italy's artistic past simply dwarfs the desire of the current generation to be progressive and challenge the visual aesthetics that are considered the norm.
Case in point is Rome. Rome has a charm all of its own; a product of almost three thousands years of refinements, reincarnations and stagnation. Where other burgeoning European cities such as Berlin, Barcelona and Madrid can recall their pasts with one hand, and look forward to their futures with the other, Rome is a place where so much of its identity is carved from its past. In fact, much of its self identity and international standing trades and relies on the legacies of its occasionally glittering past. For a visitor, its an intoxicating idea; that the Eternal City still bears the hallmarks of its past, yet for those who are here for the longer term, the idea is one which can be oft infuriating.
It's a complicated scenario, but one where change still plays a part, albeit on a much smaller scale. When it comes to street art and contemporary art, its unlikely that Rome will ever compete with its Northern neighbors, but slowly, the interest in urban art is growing, and may well eventually reach a level of acceptance, if not appreciation, that would be considered the norm in other major metropolises.
A recent New York times blog article (http://intransit.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/street-art-goes-mainstream-in-rome) pointed out that there is a growing visibility to street art in Rome. On a comparative scale, the quality of work currently lining public (and exterior private) spaces is inconsistent and occasionally juvenile, but, in keeping with tradition. Graffiti has always been a vital, immediate and spontaneous element in urban life. In Rome, this stretched back to ancient times when graffiti took the form of political, irreverent and humorous scrawlings on walls (http://www.explore-italian-culture.com/ancient-roman-daily-life.html).
But it's the graphic form of street art that interests cultural buffs and citysiders these days. For every well conceived and executed design are countless rudimentary tags scrawled across surfaces. In Rome, the ratio between finely tuned and clumsily scrawn works is still disproportionately in favor of the neanderthal like tags. The Roman street art scene it seems, is only just starting to evolve, carving its own identity out of the shadow of the monolithic influence of Rome's cultural past; and seems to be slowly moving towards pre-planned and thoughtful stencils. As in any other city, the best examples of these works can have the same effect that the humorous scrawlings of ancient Rome did; which is to bring a smile or a wry acknowledgment from passersby. In particular, it is the work being created by the NUfactory collective (http://www.nufactory.it) which is encouraging local artists to reclaim public spaces as art spaces. The 'All You Need is Wall' series which in recent years seems to have left its mark in some of Rome's most interesting Quarters, is an elevation of the more commonly seen level of practice, and sits in company with the Sten and Hogre series which are decorating all types of surfaces in the eternal city in engaging ways.
A particular favorite, located on a suitably textured surface in Piazza Verbano, one of Rome's well to do areas, offers a fresh take on the ubiquitous religious iconography that we tend to associate with the home of Roman Catholicism and the Papal Seat (okay, yes I know the Vatican is an entity of its own, but let's not split hairs here). Compare the inset image All You Need is God to the below image of a stain glass mural located right around the corner from the stencil piece, (I spotted it outside the shop of a local stain glass artisan) and it becomes apparent how potentially powerful the interplay between old and new could be for a city like Rome, which does not embrace change readily (more on that later).
That artisans are still producing these more conventional images alongside the hopefully burgeoning scene of urban artists gives me hope that the underground art scene in Rome will flourish, not just as an idea, but perhaps with a momentum that will see it grow to the level of acceptance and appreciation that is already the case in urban centres such as London, Melbourne and NYC.
My debut novel Vinyl Tiger - the story of Alekzandr, a queer pop artist from the 80s - is now available.
Visit Amazon for the three volume serialized version.
Or get the complete paperback/ebook version here.
Dave Di Vito
I'm the author of the novels #replacementsky and