(Berlin.) I’ve been invited. To a blind date with art, and this is a rare occasion indeed. It makes you feel blessed, it makes you feel important. Suddenly I knew, I got street cred, and I’m down with da boyz in da hood, know what I’m saying? No, excuse me, you certainly don’t. But: this was about Street Art - famed, and framed, graffiti! And it’s true, in my office as editor of this humble blog, I received an email begging me to favour a “secret opening” with my presence (might be a slight exaggeration in tone here). “Secret”, mind! It really does make you feel special, so, so... arty! This was not one for the plebs, not for the uninitiated, the squares, not for – you.
The invitation included the scan of an exhibition flyer, it promised a Russian (Eastern European?) woman artist’s show, and an opening with DJs and drink, or so it seemed. The artist I knew not, but the genre was Street – or, actually, the lingo has changed: Urban - Art, no wait, here it was even one more level of swag: “Contemporary Urban Art.”
Now let this sink in: “We offer 18+ art, -18 thoughts, bar and drinks & amazing beats and would like to sincerely invite you to be our guest at the secret vernissage.” 18+ art – can you blame me for expecting a performance? Can it surprise you, that I RSVP’d immediately? The reply confirmed my presence on the guest list, “obligatory for admission”. Looks like I’ve made it big this time.
The Friday come, and, go pity me, suffering from a severe cold, I decided to skip all other openings, attend my VIP appointment, then call it an early night. Did they not announce a start at 7 p.m. (no closing time, though), and do not all openings happen between 6/7 and 9/10, unless you’re of the really chosen few and rich, invited to the gallery’s private reception/dinner/orgy afterwards? Also, if there was a performance, it would be great to see the most of it. Thus off to Wedding, in the north, it was, ‘now about to witness the strength of street knowledge’ - and art. ‘Cause this is the B to the E to the R to the L to the – yeah, I guess you got it.
Factories, empty alleys, chimneys tossing white thickness up in a celestial bukkake (too risqué a metaphor? - maybe so), as I walked the deserted streets alone, in the wrong direction - I always do - then turning back again, past that same S-Bahn station, down ever more well-trodden paths of the working and exploiting class, soon starting to wonder: What, if there was no art waiting at all, not in these streets, nothing of this real, but just a cruel trick of some artist or other whom I unwittingly, or indeed: witlessly, offended, as I can almost not believe it possible, what if somebody was waiting there in the shadows, right here, over there, in the dark behind those bushes, under the railway tracks that suddenly emerged from nowhere to my right? No numbers on the gateways, the factories lit or unlit and well guarded, something or -body‘s moving inside, past, and back, as the smartphone outsmarts my gropings in the dark. Now gather hope ye who enter here. In the doorway a most regular normal guy saying something smart to that face from the flyer, busy with bulbs, installing still, then leaves. Yes, that’s here, nice to meet you, likewise. In, and up, she said, she’d be a while, it’s half past seven. From a staircase window I spot pictures on the opposing wall, how could I‘ve missed that from below? A film, no graffiti, it seemed.
Then a tubal room, three guests at most, a DJ warming up, and a bar, and a beer for four Euros, that’s expensive in Berlin. I hesitate, let’s have a look at the art, this is an exhibition after all, is it not, it was announced as such? There’s a couple of neons standing in line, no, that’s steel strings spun from the floor to a wall, and each illuminated in a different colour by nearby lamps. Not bad, but could also be a club’s light design; and in the very back two frames, A4. To be fair: No more were announced, it was all in the mail, as I verify again: “the launch of two new silkscreen prints”. A cosmic deer and a diamond encapsulating a feather (Diamond Supplies T-Shirt design?). Looks, like someone played with Illustrator, or Corel.
Crouching down, for there were (low) tables and (low) chairs, is this it?
There’s a Macbook next to the DJ area, and on its screen go watch the film that’s projected to the outside, a documentary on the artist spraying worldwide, no whole cars, only walls, and all legal. (“They call themselves writers, because that’s what they do. They write their names, among other things, everywhere...”) Sitting down again, the beer’s almost empty, the projector beams get reflected from the glass, or the wall, to paint dots and lines on the floor before that installation. Cool, but is this it?
Once more to the entrance, the staircase, back again, five, six, seven people feeling lost by now, I realize, it’s not steel strings, it’s cotton threads on that installation. More beer? There’s a new urban art museum that I’ve passed by several times a week for the past month or two, they did not invite me, I need to go there. But here? A woman in multi-coloured hot pants enters – finally: performance? - no, she settles behind the bar. The artist has advanced one or two stairs, still doing something with the lights, she’s almost done. No, the show will not run for a week or longer, “it’s ephemeral”. She says something about Miami. I guess it could have been fun to arrive five hours later, I guess it was just a big misunderstanding. Been there, done this. Berlin Underground, yeah.
Two days later, I was ready for that new museum, of street art, or whatever name marketing has invented the latest, art that originated in spray cans and hip hop (counter)culture, alongside with rap, breakdance, beat boxing, and drive-by shootings, but art that left those walls and trains, that jumped to a more conventional, more sellable, support. That’s Urban Nation, and their slogan: “URBAN NATION IS YOU + ME = US” (but there’s still only 50 states in the US, right?!).
See, there are gallerists, dealers who define themselves more as curators, accompanying an artist’s career from bottom to top - hopefully, but even if it’s ‘started from the bottom, am still here’, they won’t leave them, always guiding, building, and treating artistic souls with the utmost admiration and respect, being in it for the art, and nothing but the art (and maybe a little rustico in Tuscany, or Croatia, but Monaco never, and we won’t talk about that). On the other end of the spectrum, you'll meet, well, different characters. People who pursue the ancient dream of making gold from excrements. All they need is a sense for marketing, and some dummies to buy, but there’s a never-ending supply. I don’t know why it is, that street art attracts so many of those dealers - you remember that MOCO in Amsterdam?
I certainly do not know, and would never dare to judge, the German-American person behind Urban Nation, but she owned a Berlin gallery for “lowbrow art” (quote from Wikipedia), before establishing this new museum. One thing's for sure: In Germany, authorities lack artistic education and expertise enough to fund everything labelled “urban”: “’Urban’, great, that’s socially engaged, poor youth, minorities even. And it’s art, you cannot dispute taste.”
For marketing purposes, the wall texts at Urban Nation don’t say “lowbrow” (vulgo: for the peasants), but even translate Duchamp for the high school teachers and hip students visiting, because they “like street art, it’s so young and fresh, and innovative.” Duchamp relating to a chapter that is titled “conceptual art”, which might surprise you. Others are “Figurative”, “Flowers”, Portraits”, “Nature”, “Language Based Art”, and much of it looks like middle aged middle class divorcees would have done with water colours only decades past.
Street art can – and certainly does – influence “serious” (i.e. history worthy) contemporary art. On the other hand, street artists also copy things they’ve seen somewhere, on TV reporting about auction results, in a magazine, even in museums and galleries. They try to do alike, or more generously spoken: they translate it to the vocabulary of the hood, but alas, art schools do have their use. Urban Nation shows attempts at many more famous names. Somebody likes Maurizio Cattelan, and populated the staircase with tiny little resin dwarves, another prefers Dali, or even the most baroque Arcimboldo, &c.
The big names are here too, with one work each, and obviously exempt from above words, those who make a million or two every year, or month, or work; Kenny Scharf, Shephard Farley with his Obey brand, Banksy – no, that’s not him, that’s the original: Blek le Rat, Invader, Jeff Aerosol, Crash, ...
Neon letters spell “NOW”, now why again is that street, or urban street, no: urban contemporary art? From the website we learn, it’s something to do with “woman’s rights”, somehow this doesn’t fit street art’s hip hop roots. I confess, I giggled when reading, “the work was erected in front of the Reichstag” (next time try “installed”, or “put”, please).
Urban Nation museum itself is styled like any white cube NYC Gallery. Only outside, there’s graffiti on the walls, true to da streets, niggardz. Inside, it feels a lot like an off fair, or hobby art in a community centre, no that’s not fair. Much trash, but go hunt for the hidden gems, and you'll be satisfied. Be not mistaken: Street/Urban Art is basically just a variant of outsider art, less executed in asylums and penitentiaries, and more out in the wild (by those who discover their vocations one step earlier, so to say).
On the upside, there’s no entrance fees, none at all! And even bad art can have its use, for an education of taste.
Marina Zumi, MARINA IS PRESENT-ed, 01 December 2017, secret location
World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism