Tate Modern goes urban

Niki May Young
Friday 23 May 2008

Graffiti alters facade of the Tate Modern

Following reports of vandals striking at Stonehenge, graffiti has been splashed all over Tate Modern’s riverside façade in London. But there is no controversy here: this is art.

In the gallery's first commission to tinker with the former power station’s façade, graffiti artists from cities around the world including Bologna, Spain and New York were invited to create 15-metre-tall art displays for the gallery's Street Art exhibition. Artists Blu, Faile, JR, Nunca, Os Gêmeos and Sixeart were chosen to demonstrate “the more visual and engaging urban art as opposed to text-based graffiti and tagging”. To complement the exhibition, there is a walking tour in Southwark showcasing the work of five other Madrid-based street artists.

Tourists emerging from St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river were surprised to spot the large murals which featured diverse designs involving different topics. The exhibition’s curator Cedar Lewisohn observes that Parisian artist JR’s black-and-white portrait of a youth wielding a video camera as he would a gun, “challenges our preconceptions about the way that we digest images” while Sixeart’s comic book-inspired colourful drawings focus on the “interior landscape that he’s exposing”. Painted on a sugar-based coating on the walls, the artworks will be easily removed when the exhibition ends on 25 August.

The project illustrates a progression in the union of architecture and graffiti. Graffiti is historically the arch-enemy of architecture, but Tate Modern’s endorsement elevates the work to the status of art. Yet this project is almost inevitable in the street art’s evolution within mainstream society. In May, hundreds of people queued for hours to attend the graffiti ‘Cans Festival’ initiated by Bristol-based artist Banksy whose stencil was auctioned at a tag of £228,000 in a Bonhams auction.

Independent curator and writer Amos Klausner suggested that street art has succeeded in giving people a voice and identities where architecture has failed to do so. Lewisohn remarks: “What these artists are trying to do is to make the world a more beautiful place, a more human place.” He continues, “And architecture sometimes doesn’t do that.”

By leading exhibitions out of the building - in fact, directly on to the building - Tate Modern is responding to a call for the built environment to be personally meaningful, and signals how the building is no longer sacred territory for the architect’s own indulgence, but an art canvas for the masses to enjoy.

Zijia Wong

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