Thursday, 3 December 2009

Born in the Streets

I've been fortunate enough to recruit Chris Aylen, creative and friend, to write a guest blog post on his recent trip to Paris to see the graffiti exhibit at the Foundation Cartier pour l'art contemporain.

The once-edgy concept of putting on a graffiti exhibition in an official gallery space has slowly become less and less provocative over time. Gone are the days when a corporate space could inject some life into its stale roster simply by throwing some spray painted canvas up onto the walls. To be honest, most times I see graffiti in a controlled gallery environment, I throw-up a little in my mouth. One of the most appealing aspects to graffiti is the fact that it's confrontational and uncontrolled: paying an admission fee to look at something that was never intended to generate money doesn't seem quite right to me.

So, when I heard that the Cartier exhibition space in Paris was planning to put on a show that covered the history of graffiti - 'NĂ© dans la rue' (Born in the Streets) - my heart didn't exactly pound its way out of my chest. It was only when I started seeing reports of the show and began to see imagery from the opening night that I began to get interested. It certainly seemed that there had been some genuine effort put into making this a credible event. Traveling to Paris isn't something I do very often, but incorporating a visit to the show with a little excursion around the city seemed like a nice idea. And so it was done.

Finding your way from Raspail Metro station to the front gates of the Cartier space is as easy as following the trail of destruction: everything in sight has been liberally covered with a layer of spray paint. I'm not sure what the local residents think of this, but it definitely made my journey easier.

The exhibition certainly has some pulling power in terms of the artists involved. Whilst many will be attracted by some of the more high-brow (ie. 'socially acceptable') artists such as Shepard Fairey, it was the informed decision to include work from pioneering graffiti writers such as Seen, Part2, Dondi (R.I.P.) and others that pushed my initial scepticism aside. The ground floor is primarily a collection of free-standing pieces, with a few wall-mounted posters. It's nice enough, but the graffiti on the outside of the building is more interesting and relevant. Downstairs is where the real action is.

Descending into the basement of the gallery, I immediately realised that this was where the real meat of the show was hiding. Initially, it doesn't seem like there's that much to look at, but as you go around the pieces and exhibits, it's easy to get consumed by what you're looking at. The cultural relevance of seeing something like Seen's original sketch for his iconic 'Hand Of Doom' whole car (a train carriage, covered from top-to-bottom and end-to-end) is hard to put into words. Likewise, Henry Chalfant's photographic contributions (many of which featured in his 'Subway Art' book) are also of immeasurable importance: without his documentation and subsequent publishing of these photos, graffiti would have never reached a global audience so quickly. My only gripe is that unless you knew what you were looking at, it would be easy to disregard some of the exhibits as 'just photos' or 'just sketches'. Whether something was lost in translation, I'm not sure, but I felt that a little more time spent putting these exhibits into context would've really helped clarify their status.

In the next room, scenes from 'Wild Style' and 'Style Wars' played: both essential viewing, especially the latter documentary, which is perhaps the most informative and 'genuine' glimpse into the subculture ever produced. It might be over 25 years old now, but 'Style Wars' is still the defining film of the early hip-hop movement. The walls in this room were covered in canvas paintings from some of the best early writers and other ephemera - all very nicely laid out and exciting to see in the flesh.

I'm not usually one to giving a summarising paragraph at the end of a review (I mean, c'mon, who doesn't skim through the piece just to read the verdict at the end?), but I'll just say that if you fancy seeing something rather special, you could do a lot worse than hop on the Eurostar to Paris to see this show.

1) A chance to see some amazing original artifacts from graffiti's history.
2) Easy to get to and reasonably priced admission.
3) A nice gallery space.
4) Fantastic gallery bookshop with over 100 different graffiti publications available to browse and purchase.

1) No photography allowed. If I'd have known this beforehand, it'd have put me off making the effort to go.
2) Not enough information on what is displayed.
3) A couple of questionable inclusions to the overall high standard of exhibits.

Chris Aylen works as a creative at Experience and has also worked as Head of Innovations at U-Dox for five years. Chris has a strong portfolio of creative work for Adidas, Nike, MTV and Ralph Lauren. He utilises his thorough understanding of urban culture and knowledge to reach young audiences through participation.

Chris also has a wide-range of digital experience including setting up of the online sneaker resource and music news website

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