- Written by Marta Sánchez
As well as being one of today's most highly regarded artists (something that, incidentally, would have greatly annoyed him), Sigmar Polke is the personification of the versatile, nonconformist artist creator. His work runs the gamut of all the styles present in contemporary art, from Realism to Pop Art and from Arte Povera to pieces in whose creation a deliberate happenchance intervenes. However, what makes Polke one of the most interesting artists of the last four decades is that he never limited himself to just one single material or product (oil, acrylic, collage ....) on whichever mount or frame he chose to display them. In his workshop, he was given not only to mixing it up with all kinds of media but also to combining many of the components of 20th century culture.
As well as being one of today's most highly regarded artists (something that, incidentally, would have greatly annoyed him), Sigmar Polke is the personification of the versatile, nonconformist artist creator. His work runs the gamut of all the styles present in contemporary art, from Realism to Pop Art and from Arte Povera to pieces in whose creation a deliberate happenchance intervenes.
Sigmar Polke. Fredrik Von Erichsen—dpa/Landov - Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
However, what makes Polke one of the most interesting artists of the last four decades is that he never limited himself to just one single material or product (oil, acrylic, collage ....) on whichever mount or frame he chose to display them. In his workshop, he was given not only to mixing it up with all kinds of media but also to combining many of the components of 20th century culture. As a result, his work is full of nuances, and oftentimes poetry as an added ingredient, along with his very firm commitment to social commentary verging on whistleblowing.
From stained glass window apprenticeship to the Düsseldorf Arts Academy
Stained glass window by Sigmar Polke. Grossmünster Church. Photo: Roland zh
Polke was born in Silesia, now part of Poland, in 1941. His family were forced to flee to East Germany after his homeland's defeat in World War II and again in 1953, this time into neighbouring West Germany. With his family now settled in Düsseldorf, Polke began his artistic career learning the techniques of staining glass windows but soon exchanged this for Fine Arts studies at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy. Sometimes it's of the essence to find yourself in just the right place at just the right time which is precisely what happened in Polke's case as he was able to forge his talent under the tutorship, and influence, of professors such as Joseph Beuys, Karl Otto Götz and Gerhard Hoehme.
By 1963, Polke had already allied himself with several classmates and friends, amongst them none other than Gerhard Richter, to launch his first ever collective exhibition in one of the city's empty slaughterhouses. It was the starting point for both their careers and they would soon conceptualize something that would from then on be definitively linked to their art: Capital Realism.
Capital Realism, alquemy and provocation
Freundinnen (Friends) 1964-65 © The Estate of Sigmar Polke / DACS, London / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. www.alexkittle.com
Capitalist Realism was inspired by Socialist Realism, the "official" art movement of Lenin's USSR and Mao's China. During these years, Polke intelligently mixed parameters inherited from New American art (heavily influenced by Warhol and Lichtenstein) with a stale realism riddled with stereotypes and symbols, like the swastika that was then banned in Germany. The result was a series of works denouncing not only Germany's absorption into a consumerist and capitalist maelstrom but also the stagnation, totalitarianism and omnipresence of the governments ruling the Communist bloc. This period is marked by iconic works such as "Freundinnen" (Friends) from 1965.
Polke was also known as the alquemist. In his studio, he mixed materials, media and products to give new meaning to reality and to art. These works, with formats ranging in scale from the smallest to the most monumental, differ according to who is looking at them, from which angle or distance and even the mood they happen to be in at the time. But Polke's alchemist zeal was not limited to just the purely technical field. As well as blending seemingly impossible products with pigments, from the 60's on he began to merge political and critical elements into his creative output, these layered with the German sarcastic tradition inherited from artists like George Grosz.
Buyer, I dare you
Sigmar Polke Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald) 1963 © The Estate of Sigmar Polke / DACS, London / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Tate UK
This type of experimentation gave rise to pieces full of political intent. During this time, Polke produced such provocative works as his famous portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, painted in 1963. After seeing Warhol's well-known prints of the multiplied faces of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, Polke decided to do the same with one of the then most hated people in America: the alleged murderer of President Kennedy. His attitude was akin to a challenge to society, a way of saying to the world: "Here you are then. Buy it if you dare".
The LSD years
Sigmar Polke. Alice im Wunderland, 1972. Private Collection. Photo: Wolfgang Morell
© The Estate of Sigmar Polke by SIAE 2016. Eigth Art Projects.
The 70's were for Polke, as for so many other artists, a decade of experimentation. He went to live on a farm commune where he dabbled in drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms, in addition to contributing to the creation of collective artworks. They are fruitful years in terms of his creativity. Polke produces some quite powerful works based on mixing and overlapping new materials. And at this time, they also match the artist's photographs that he was manipulating using chemical agents in a seeming attempt to portray the human mind as altered by drugs.
In 1972, Polke takes part in the iconic documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany and from that moment on, his work achieved a worldwide popularity that continues to this day. The 70's also see him travelling extensively to the likes of Afghanistan and the Lebanon where his camera captured moments that he would later transform into works of art.
The journalist Sarfraz Manzoor conducts an exhaustive review of the retrospective exhibition Alibis: Sigmar Polke (1963-2010) at the Tate Modern, London
Rupture and rebirth: Art as a reflection of a society in turmoil
Sigmar Polke. This is how you sit correctly (after Goya), 1982. Private collection, Baden Baden. Image viewable at www.artchive.com.
Already by now a world-renowned artist, at the start of the 80's Polke is rethinking his art and decides to break with all that went before in order to start again from scratch. The experimentation in his art becomes more troubling, explosive and radical. Over this period, he uses disturbing and even dangerous products to carry out his works: meteorite dust, arsenic-based toxic paint, uranium, ..... Polke draws on artists of the past who portrayed the horrors of war and human behaviour. Among them, Goya's work exerts a particular attraction and the Spanish artist's imagery appears in works like "This is how you sit correctly (after Goya)" from 1982.
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the tense relations between world superpowers, the unstable political scene was giving much cause for alarm. This state of affairs can be seen reflected in Polke's work depicting a changing, nightmarish world during these years.
Paganini, 1982. Saatchi Gallery, London
In his later decades, Polke's work continued to evolve along these same lines. Without ever abandoning his references to Germany's past, evident in his portraits of young Nazis or the swastikas hidden in works such as "Paganini" from 1982, his continuous experiments with products, materials, transparencies, projections and graphics generated dozens of masterpieces, works that now constitute one of the most compact, coherent, shocking and provocative artistic trajectories of 20th century art history.
Following the 1972 documenta 5 exposure that catapulted him to fame, Polke began a frequent chain of joint and individual exhibitions. Initially, his work was exhibited in German galleries (and later museums) which then moved on to cities such as Paris, New York, Washington and London. Polke died in 2010 but the world's greatest museums still continue to mount exhibitions to showcase the magnitude and diversity of his oeuvre.
- New Works - Sigmar Polke. Museum of Modern Art of the Ville de París, 1988. One of the first exhibitions outside Germany which marked the beginning of a worldwide dissemination of his work.
- The Three Lies of Painting - Sigmar Polke. Art and Exhibition Hall, Bonn, 1997. This exhibition subsequently moved to the Berlin National Gallery for Contemporary Art at Hamburger Bahnhof (1997-1998). It was based on a work of the same name from 1994.
- Retrospective. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), 1990. This was Polke's first ever retrospective in the Unites States. The exhibition subsequently moved to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (Washington), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago) and the Brooklyn Museum (New York).
- Sigmar Polke - Photoworks. When Pictures Vanish. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1995). This exhibition was a compilation of the artist's photographs taken between 1960 and 1995.
- Retrospective - Sigmar Polke. Museum Frieder Burda - Baden Baden (Germany), 2007.
- Alibis - Sigmar Polke: 1963 – 2010. MoMA (New York). Later, Tate Modern (London), 2014-15.
- Sigmar Polke - Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2016.
- Sigmar Polke - Music from an Unknown Source. Museum of Modern Art, Mexico, 2017.
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
- Written by Marta Sánchez
At the tender age of 10, a Japanese girl called Yayoi Kusama encountered the worlds of colour, sculpture and the modelling arts for the very first time. Enamoured ever since with polka dots, she began creating works of art in which fantasy and reality coexisted in settings where nothing was what it seemed: portraits of her mother obliterated by dots, for instance. These were works intended to reflect the disturbing hallucinations that her own mind was producing. They were the solution Kusama came up with to counteract the effects of her mental disorder. She simply painted what she saw. That same little girl, Yayoi Kusama, is still alive and well in her Infinite Rooms, in those ever-present polka dots and in those flowers on the borderline between heaven and hell.
At the tender age of 10, a Japanese girl called Yayoi Kusama encountered the worlds of colour, sculpture and the modelling arts for the very first time. Enamoured ever since with polka dots, she began creating works of art in which fantasy and reality coexisted in settings where nothing was what it seemed: portraits of her mother obliterated by dots, for instance. These were works intended to reflect the disturbing hallucinations that her own mind was producing. They were the solution Kusama came up with to counteract the effects of her mental disorder. She simply painted what she saw.
That same little girl, Yayoi Kusama, is still alive and well in her Infinite Rooms, in those ever-present polka dots and in those flowers on the borderline between heaven and hell. The artistic world of one of our most fascinating contemporary artists has its origin in the nightmares that have plagued her all her life. But as she matured into adulthood, she found the means by which to portray and display them beautifully to an adoring audience.
Yayoi Kusama at work. Photo: Vagner Carvalheiro
"My art is an expression of my life, particularly my mental illness." Yayoi Kusama
Born in Matsumoto (Japan) in 1929, her formative years were played out in a misogynistic society where women had little or no say and even less so in the complex field of the arts. In 1957, at the age of 28, she moved to New York to seek out a new way to express the artistic maelstrom that nestled in her mind and spirit. Neither the overwhelmingly robust American artistic world nor its male bias prevented her from becoming one of the most 'bubbly', innovative and active art creators of her time (and the times that would follow). In the form of installations, "happenings", oversize canvasses and performances, the work of Yayoi Kusama since then has displayed a diversity and an anxious curiosity that knows no barriers and no bounds.
New York (1957-1973)
All the eternal love I have for the pumpkins (2016) – Dallas Museum of Art
In New York, she rubs shoulders with artists of renown such as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd. She becomes part of the Pop Art explosion and the unfettered creativity of the '60s and '70s with its hugely 'influencing' installations of light, colour and curves. This is also the time of her "soft sculptures", montages of colourfully-dotted, stuffed or quilted fabrics that reveal her deep-seated fear (as she herself attested) of sexuality and penetration.
By the end of the '60s, a powerful socio-cultural movement dominating the whole American art scene becomes just too much for Kusama's spirit and wellbeing. She abandons it in favour of instead creating artworks as 'happenings', anti-war demonstrations and fashion. She also begins to make films, somewhere in between cinematography, self-portraiture and art, amongst which "Kusama's Self-Obliteration" (1967) stands out. The film won numerous awards and was a giant step towards worldwide recognition for an artist as innovative as she is fascinating.
Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever 1996. Photo: Le Consortium, Dijon © André Morin and © Yayoi Kusama . Tate Modern, London
1973 is the year of Kusama's return to her native Japan. Her talent then truly reveals itself in all its multiple facets: from the already established plastic arts to the newly discovered literary ones. In 1983, her novel "The Hustler's Grotto of Christopher Street" wins the 10th Yasei Jidai Literary Award for First-Time Authors. The '80s see her first major exhibitions worldwide, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Calais (France), as well as New York and London. These exhibits culminate in her presence at the 1993 Venice Biennale where "Narcissus Garden" (heavily influenced and promoted by the artist Lucio Fontana) spoke to the spectator of the self-proclaimed and lifelong history of narcissism of its creator using as language her passion for flowers, mirrors and infinite, spherical shapes.
Venice Biennale. Narcissus Garden.
Yayoi Kusama in her Narcissus Garden installation, created for the 1993 Venice Biennale. Photo © Khan Academy
Although Kusama was not officially invited to exhibit, the moral and financial support afforded her by Lucio Fontana (as well as permission from the chairman of the Biennale Committee himself) meant she could stage her installation on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. It consisted of 1500 mirrored globes the size of crystal balls, tightly arranged to reflect only the viewer's image. Kusama placed two signs beside it: “Narcissus Garden, Kusama” and “Your Narcissium (sic) For Sale”. Wearing a gold kimono with silver sash, she sold off the mirror balls to passers-by for a dollar a piece, and each was accompanied by a flyer with flattering comments about her work. In this way, the work revealed itself to be a steely criticism of the commercialisation of art and its status as merchandise. After this, Kusama began further work on the creation of outdoor installations and sculptures.
Yayoi Kusama with recent works, Hirshorn Museum, 2016. Photo: Tomoaki Makino. Courtesy of the artist © Yayoi Kusama.
Now a world-renowned artist whose work has been recreated and exhibited internationally in the most prestigious museums and galleries, Yayoi Kusama currently lives in a private mental health facility of her own free will. She continues to work from her nearby studio and continues to dialogue with her old nightmares, the primal origin of her ever-restless and always dynamic work. Then, in September 2017, and as a fitting culmination to her career, The Kusama Museum (Tokyo) opened its doors and its five floors entirely dedicated to the oeuvre of this fascinating creator.
Yayoi Kusama talks about her life and her work in this feature from Tate Youtube channel
A quirky, troubled, coherent oeuvre
If anything were to characterise the work of Kusama, it would undoubtedly be its intensity. This prolific and innovative artist could almost be said to imbue her creations with 'suffering'. Since her very first pieces, when a kind of mental hallucination was already both palpable and inseparable from the aesthetic, Kusama's works have captured the spectator and propelled them into a stream of passions.
Accumulation Sculptures. Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid Museo Reina Sofía
In addition to the celebrated New York performances and "happenings" of the 60s and 70s, Kusama was at the same time creating her famous Accumulation Sculptures in which she abandoned paint as her only medium, instead merging it with three-dimensional shapes. Titled “Soft Sculptures”, they had clear phallic and sexual overtones that became emblematic of her work.
Infinity Mirrored Room – Phalli's Field (1965), Hirshorn Museum. Photo © Yayoi Kusama.
Infinity Mirrored Rooms. But if anything about the artist's work still incites passion (and one has only to remember the Spring 2017 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington that broke all-time visitor records), it is her Infinity Mirrored Rooms. Kusama began work on this series in the 60s, a series made up of different rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls, shapes and lights creating an ambience intended to transmit certain sensations and feelings. They were places of peace but also of anxiety. Of colour but also austerity. Of welcome and of terror. And this because all of the sensations that form part of Kusama's life become ours, too, as we literally enter into her works.
Yayoi Kusama, a legend in contemporary art, is still today painting the stuff of her dreams and, of course, her nightmares: as awful, as awesome and as fascinating as all of ours.
- Yayoi Kusama. Infinity Mirrors
- Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama
- Yayoi Kusama. Revised And Expanded Edition
- Women In Art. 50 Fearless Creatives Who Inspired the World
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
- Written by Kilian Lavernia
At first glance, the work of Marina Abramović (Belgrade, 1946) would appear to conform to that hackneyed old saying that the best art is always about the self. However, as with so many other clichés about contemporary art, this serves only to limit the scope, richness and originality of this particular artist who, since day one over four decades ago, has made her own human body into a vital space for experimentation, her raw materials and a battlefield, even. Abramović herself is, effectively, the work itself. But only in as much as one must then incorporate this variable into a more complex equation, after pioneering reflection on the ultimate meaning of her performances which, after forty years of creative exploration, has consolidated her place and her identity within postmodern discourse.
Photo portrait of Marina Abramović by David Leyes
At first glance, the work of Marina Abramović (Belgrade, 1946) would appear to conform to that hackneyed old saying that the best art is always about the self. However, as with so many other clichés about contemporary art, this serves only to limit the scope, richness and originality of this particular artist who, since day one over four decades ago, has made her own human body into a vital space for experimentation, her raw materials and a battlefield, even.
Photo portrait of Marina Abramović. Image available at www.cronicasyversiones.com
Abramović herself is, effectively, the work itself. But only in as much as one must then incorporate this variable into a more complex equation, after pioneering reflection on the ultimate meaning of her performances which, after forty years of creative exploration, has consolidated her place and her identity within postmodern discourse. As a form of visual art, of art as action, her performances are both experiments in trying to identify and transgress limits of control over one's own body as well as, in regard to the relationship between public and performer, searching questions about the taxonomic boundaries in traditional art, based on the divide that exists between these two: subject and object. If we understand her body as simultaneously both subject and medium, Abramović's experimental probing breaks away from the ideas of stasis and temporality inherent in our usual aesthetic understanding, and thereby expands the dialogical, structural boundaries of any piece of art.
The Serbian artist's performances involve an immediate and emotional exchange of energy with the public, as she intends, making them that last piece of the equation without which the transformative experience of art would be incomplete and in vain. On this matter, she has commented: "I could never give a private performance at home because I have no audience there [...] The bigger the audience, the better the performance and the more energy runs through the space. The audience should take an historic step and really connect with the object."
The artist is present (2010). Image available from the Marina Abramović Institute website: www.mai.art
From the very beginning, Abramović's output has been daring, provocative and transgressive. She began her artistic studies in the mid 60's in her birthplace of Belgrade, continued and finished them in Croatia, returning to teach Fine Art in Serbia in 1973. Ever since her debut with the well-known Rhythm (1973/74) series, framed as a bold, hazardous exploration of Body Art, the young Abramović was testing, on one hand, the body's limits in the face of physical pain, suffering, self-harm and, on the other, the moral resistance of the public to feel her world through those very personal experiences of her female body. It was a work in, on and of her body.
Rhythm 2 (1974). Image available at marinaabramovic.blogspot.com
The different variations of Rhythm used embodiment to reflect on universal themes such as death, pain, sorrow, time, the limits of consciousness and unconsciousness, not to mention the behavioural patterns of the mind. Likewise, in Rhythm 2, she experimented with the varying states of lucidity and loss of corporal control produced by the ingestion of a range of different pills. In Rhythm 0, one of her most emblematic performances, Abramović literally put herself at the public's disposition. Along with 72 different instruments of different uses - from pencil to polaroid camera to perfume as well as knives, whips, chains and a loaded gun - she offered up her body for a no-holds-barred, unscripted, interactive show with her public.
Rythm 0. Image available at www.upsocl.com
The visitors were invited to choose any object and use it on her in whichever way seemed most interesting to them. And so began what was intended as a reflection on trust and the social contract and ended up being a palpable demonstration of Man's natural inclination towards violence. "What I learnt was that, if you allow the public to decide, they could kill you. I felt really attacked: they cut my clothes off, they scraped rose thorns across my stomach, one person held the gun to my head before another took it off him." Abramović's silence and lack of reaction meant that the violence escalated quickly and dramatically. "After exactly six hours, as planned I got up and started walking towards the public. They all scarpered, avoiding a real-life confrontation."
Rhythm 0 (1974). Image available at ourpursuitofart.blogspot.com
The subsequent evolution in Abramović's work owes much to her character trait of inclusivity and her willingness to be ever open to others. In a certain way, it's in her nature to have infinite possibilities. As opposed to the unitary and bourgeois concept of one single artistic identity, namely the definition of the artist-individual focused on each work as a solitary project, Abramović invariably challenges herself to build up emotional interactions with second parties and with herself as producer/director.
Proof of this came at the end of the 70's when her artistic output centred around an unclassifiable dual manifestation of her art in productive and emotional conjunction with her lover, the German artist and photographer Uwe Laysiepen, better known as Ulay. In a series entitled The Other, Abramović and Ulay performed numerous performance works as a duo in which their bodies – always synchronised, dressed (or undressed) identically and with similar behavioural patterns – created additional ways in which to interact with the public. Based on a professional and sentimental relationship of absolute trust, both liked to speak of an "adrogynous unity" whose actions personified the limits of interpersonal relationships, their effect on the "I", the ego and artistic personae. This is perfectly illustrated in Relation in Time (1977), one of their earliest joint perfomances, where this hermaphroditic union is symbolised by their tightly interwoven hair.
Relation in Time (1977). Image available at pomeranz-collection.com
Their collaboration produced further and riskier (and indeed risqué) projects such as Imponderabilia (1977), where Abramović and Ulay stood facing each other, completely unclothed, in a narrow passageway at the entrance to the museum, thereby obliging visitors to squeeze between them and brush up against their naked bodies.
Imponderabilia (1977).Image available at delir-arte.blogspot.com
Another equally compelling joint performance was A-AAA (1978) where both artists shouted at each other in a firm-handed show of power designed to determine who had the more dominant voice. Better known is Rest Energy (1980) in which the couple faced each other, stock still for hours, holding a bow between them and the arrow between Ulay's fingers aimed directly at Abramović's heart. The strength and stamina required of both of them to maintain tension and prevent the arrow being shot was palpable. During the whole performance, microphones recorded both their heartbeats, both of them accelerated and agitated, a clear manifestation of a state of vulnerability in which responsibility and control could slip from their fingers any second.
Rest Energy (1980). Image available at www.altrevelocita.it
The "The Other" series, as much a passionate romance as an artistic collaboration, had as its symbolic finale the famous staging of 1988's The Lovers. Here too, their emotional and professional rupture was played out as a work of art, portayed as a hike, each on their own, departing from opposite ends of the Great Wall Of China until meeting up again in the middle. A three month long and lonely walk culminating in one last embrace. It is an almost definitive physical and communicational goodbye - it would be 23 years until they saw each other again - and an attempt to stage the disintegration of their relationship by means of the physical and emotional fatique occasioned by a 2,000 km journey on foot. It could in some ways be called a romantic ending: unclassifiable, unorthodox and emotionally charged with mysticism.
The Lovers (1988). Image available at http://inkultmagazine.com
With hindsight, Abramović's subsequent reinvention of herself as a solo artist could be defined as the crucial turning point in her career. A certain time lapse and, more importantly, long-distance travels abroad, Brasil for instance, led to a creative resurgence during the 90's that broke away, once and for all, from the conscious assumption that her life and her art would be inseparable from and fundamental to all her future productions. And so, although the body would continue to play an undeniable part, the performances evolved into spaces destined for the liberation of her own personal demons, underlying or otherwise, as well as new forms of performing as a way to explore how we relate to reality.
An illustrative example, from the early 90's, would be the object installations she herself defined under the umbrella term of Transitory Objects. By incorporating natural materials such as semi-precious stones, bones and magnets into her actions, Abramović wasn't looking to give them a function of their own, as if they were sculptures. Rather, she was using them to generate experiences and energies, as if they were everyday life rituals. One has only to remember, from the initial stages of this second phase 1990 - 1994, the Dragon Head series in which the artist sat stock still whilst various ravenous pythons, who hadn't eaten for two weeks, slithered all over her body. It's an image of potent mythic-feminine resonance.
Recreation: Dragon Head (2010). Image available at mai.art
Even more striking, given the eponymous violence of the time, was Balkan Baroque (1997) which won the Gold Lion award at the Venice Biennale that same year, the Festival's highest prize. Expanding on the theme of the human skeleton, previously explored in Cleaning the Mirror (1995), Abramović used video installation to recreate the putrifying horror of armed conflict in the Balkans War. As well as projecting an image of her own parents on the walls, the artist positioned herself in the middle of the space, washing a huge pile of 1500 raw, bloodied veal bones whilst singing traditional folk songs from her childhood. The dramatic staging no doubt owed a lot to the conceptual baroque of her design but also lent it sincere and credible political weight.
Balkan Baroque (1997). Image available at www.tropism.it
Abramović's recognition as an artist has been irrefutable since the turn of the century. Whilst, on the one hand, it is true that her active participation in various works has become so minimal as to be almost the mere fact of her being there, life and art for Abramović are intertwined as if an absolute presence, as if frozen in time. It is from this angle that she seeks to lift the public's spirit, not so much via direct emotional shock, performance surprise or Brechtian compromise but rather through other more energy-giving mechanisms such as silence, meditation and ecstasy-like consciousness: "To create a type of artwork that is almost devoid of content but still retains a kind of pure energy that will left the spectator's spirit", is how she described it in a 2008 Klaus Biesenbach interview.
In this regard, one inevitably thinks of the unforgettable The artist is present, an exhausting performance piece presented in March 2010 on the occasion of a MoMa retrospective of her entire back catalogue which remains, to date, the most important ever and, with more than 50 exhibit pieces including performances, installations, videos, photographs and collaborations along with the subsequent documentary of the same name. For three whole months, Abramović remained seated in the lobby of the New York museum for over 700 hours (during opening hours and without a break) allowing over 1,800 visitors, each in turn, one by one, to sit opposite her in total silence, separtated by just a table, and to share the imperturbable presence of the artist for as long as they considered necessary.
The artist is present (2010). Image available at www.filmswelike.com
Like a challenge to time, like a reflection on modern-day society's emotional alienation, the hit piece created an immediate connection between artist and spectator - no verbal communication necessary - and made the lack of communication between one fragile body with another, especially in a great metropolis like New York, even more palpable.
There were also moments of utter surprise: after 23 years of separation, Ulay appeared out of the blue on the day of the inauguration. Abramović's heart visibly missed a beat on seeing him and he was the only one with whom she had any physical contact, after a brief conversation using only their eyes.
But at the same time, it is no less true that diversification of format and method have been a constant in Marina Abramović's life and works, aware as she is of the increasingly global reach of what she has to offer and say. One need look no further than her much-lauded collaboration with Robert Wilson in the experimental opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović which delved into the idea of her life's (and various deaths') leitmotifs as its narrative, with other great artists like Antony, Willem Dafoe and Wilson himself joing forces.
Marina Abramović and Antony in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Image available at www.robertwilson.com
As a final thought, one might ask oneself if, by focusing her most recent efforts on constant meta-reflection and revision of her prolific output, the potency of her artistic message has seen itself somewhat compromised by a worldwide success that has, unavoidably, transformed the scope, meaning and impact of her performances. Can those same concepts and themes of 20 or 30 years ago still be conveyed today? Given recent changes in the way artists communicate to us and the media and spaces now available to them, would it not be, rather, a case of qualitatively distinct experiences?
Slow-motion workshop, directed at the Whitworth Galley, Manchester (2009). Image available at passengerart.com
Art as action, live art made with the artists' own bodies is an artform belonging to a tradition predating but not predicting the digital age that came with all its short-lived sensations and hyperinformation. Neither did it anticipate a scenario of absolute trivialisation or the lionisation of those other anonymous performers of the 21st century, on youtube for instance. In any case, the conventional definition of performance as 'action that happens within a limited time frame' is in urgent need of revision. Perhaps the Marina Abramović Institue (MAI), inaugurated in 2015 in New York State, might take it upon itself to gather together a multidisciplinary think-tank to review it and instruct places of collaborative and experimental art in society today with the Serbian artist's legacy as a starting point. The "grandmother of perfomance", just turned 70, has a lot of life left in her yet.
Publicity campaign for the Marina Abramovic Institute. Image available at mai.art
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
- Written by Marisa Carrero
Jasper Johns was a small-town boy from the Deep South whose university art teacher urged and convinced him to move to New York. He had known he wanted to be a painter from the age of five and was to become one of the most influential American painters of the second half of the twentieth century.Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930 and raised in Allendale, South Carolina, Johns' childhood love of painting lead him to study art; first at the University of South Carolina from 1946 to 1947, and later in the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1948, where his work was first exhibited. His artistic career was interrupted by two years of military service in the Korean War, part of which he spent in Japan. Upon returning to New York in 1952, Johns worked in bookshops for a few years while he familiarised himself with the city’s art scene.
Jasper Johns was a small-town boy from the Deep South whose university art teacher urged and convinced him to move to New York. He had known he wanted to be a painter from the age of five and was to become one of the most influential American painters of the second half of the twentieth century.
Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930 and raised in Allendale, South Carolina, Johns' childhood love of painting lead him to study art; first at the University of South Carolina from 1946 to 1947, and later in the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1948, where his work was first exhibited. His artistic career was interrupted by two years of military service in the Korean War, part of which he spent in Japan. Upon returning to New York in 1952, Johns worked in bookshops for a few years while he familiarised himself with the city’s art scene. The friendships he struck up there with artists such as the musician John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham were to have a big influence on his understanding of art. The painter Robert Rauschenberg, a fellow exponent of abstract expressionism in the 1950s, was especially influential; although Johns would later make a complete departure from that movement and go on to create new styles. A visit to Pennsylvania to view Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass had a huge impact on his artistic vision. With his readymades, Duchamp had invented a new creative method of transforming found objects into art. The influence of this work would lead Johns to incorporate objects such as rulers, spoons and coat hangers into his paintings.
Left: Flag. Image available at www.metmuseum.org Right: Three flags. Image available at www.usc.edu
In 1954-55 he made his famous Flags, works which were hugely influential on 20th century American iconography. The paintings Flag, Target and Numbers formed part of his first great solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Made using the 'encaustic' technique (in which pigment is mixed with hot wax and applied to the canvas), the flag paintings were revolutionary in their apparent simplicity and power. The show made such an impact that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York bought three of the works to exhibit in its gallery. Jasper Johns had taken a giant step forward by incorporating the everyday imagery of North American life into his work, taking “things the mind already knows” as his subject. More interested in the creative process than the work itself, Johns did not restrict himself to one single style but used diverse methods such as lithography and screen printing. At this point in his career he moved away from his roots in abstract expressionism towards new styles such as pop art, minimalism and conceptual art, which many credit him with having helped to invent. He began to incorporate objects into his paintings, transforming them into sculptures and creating original collages from the results.
Left: Souvenir 2. Image available at www.artchive.com
During the 1970s, he collaborated with many artists of the day, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Morris and Bruce Naumann. These collaborations helped to further his career and allowed him to continue his artistic studies and research. During this period Johns took on new perspectives and created new art forms, such as his illustrations for Frank O'Hara's book of ‘poem-paintings’, In Memory Of My Feelings. In 1964 he made one of his most famous prints, Ale Cans; an image of two cans of Ballantine Ale which he had previously made as a bronze sculpture in 1960. He searched for different ways of seeing and representing the same objects through a variety of disciplines, including printmaking, sculpture and even photography.
Left: In Memory of My Feelings. Image available at greg.org
Right: Two Ale Cans. Image available at www.theartsdesk.com
For some of Johns’ followers and students, the seventies marked a transition over to a more autobiographical style that was quite different from his early work. He paid homage to Cezanne and Picasso; dividing his paintings into various panels and creating works full of primary colours, such as Scent (1973-74) and the triptych Weeping Woman (1975). In this period he seemed obsessed with repetition and he remade images using a variety of artistic techniques and mediums. He made his friend John Cage’s aphorism his own: “if you do something more than once you get better results”. For Johns it was a matter of searching for the similarities and differences between the various representations that he created. Following a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Johns’ work was exhibited in galleries across Europe, including the 1978 Venice Biennale exhibition, and a show of 'working proofs' at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, among others.
Left: Target With Four Faces. Image available at www.jasper-johns.org
Right: Coat Hanger and Spoon. Image available at www.christies.com
Johns’ work would change direction once again, as he experimented with innovative art forms and began a new creative cycle. For the 1987 exhibition The Seasons at the MoMA, Johns created a series of paintings called Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter which included human figures. That same year, the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid hosted one of the most important retrospective shows of his career, featuring 180 works from 1960-1985. The show was curated by Riva Castleman, the director of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the MoMA.
His work began to fetch incredible prices at auction, making Johns the most sought-after living artist of the day. However, throughout all of the experimentation and changes in style over his career, he never stopped creating. Nor did he ever abandon his love for the colour grey, as demonstrated in paintings such as Bridge (1997), Catenary (I call to the Grave) (1998) and Near the Lagoon (2003), in which he suspended strings across almost completely grey canvasses. His work returned to Spain in 2011 with a new retrospective exhibition organised by the Valencia Institute of Modern Art, which included the first public showing of a ‘New Sculpture’ he had made four years earlier.
Right: Summer. Image available at www.jasper-johns.org
Famously, Johns said that “to be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist”. Perhaps this explains the continuous shifts he made in his artistic trajectory; a restless man who constantly reinvented his style. Yet aside from this, his great power is evident in the overwhelming influence of his work on the following generations. He remains one of the most world’s most valuable living artists, whose work fetches astronomical prices at auction.
Even today at the age of 86, Johns continues to be news in the art world, as demonstrated by the success of his 2014 exhibition at the MoMA in New York, Regrets. This series of paintings, drawings and prints created during the previous year and a half were all based on a single photograph of the artist Lucian Freud, taken in 1964.
Left: Untitled. Image available at www.theartsdesk.com
Johns once said that his work was “largely concerned with relations between seeing and knowing, seeing and saying, seeing and believing”. Throughout his entire career he has seen, known and created using almost every type of material and technique (including lithography, screen-printing, engraving and sculpture), producing a unique body of work and forging a movement of his own within the art world. For the next generation of artists that follow in his wake, Jasper Johns remains one of the great masters of the 20th century.
Above: Racing Thoughts. Image available at www.nj.com 7 February 2008
Left: Jasper Johns. Image available at drawpaintprint.tumblr.com
Right: Catenary. Image available at visualarts.walkerart.org
Left, above: Scent. Image available at www.artnet.com
Right, above: Homenage to Jasper Johns. Image available at www.tapestry.co.nz
0-9. Image available at www.jasper-johns.org
Translated from the Spanish by Ben Riddick
British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) once said "Rather than a style as such, what I do is try to stay always at the forefront of innovation”. It’s a clear expression of how she became a key figure for many in the evolution of an experimental architecture that imagined the new spaces of the 21st century. Hadid conceived of her work as a transformation of the vision of the future, using innovative concepts and forms to create cutting-edge works and designs full of originality, power and vanguardism. Hadid’s architectural language possesses an indisputable personality and unique character that is usually instantly recognisable. Her expressivity resonates with her outstanding personal achievement; an immigrant of Arabic origins, she was a unique voice in a profession that was never considered appropriate for women.
British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) once said "Rather than a style as such, what I do is try to stay always at the forefront of innovation”. It’s a clear expression of how she became a key figure for many in the evolution of an experimental architecture that imagined the new spaces of the 21st century. Hadid conceived of her work as a transformation of the vision of the future, using innovative concepts and forms to create cutting-edge works and designs full of originality, power and vanguardism.
Hadid’s architectural language possesses an indisputable personality and unique character that is usually instantly recognisable. Her expressivity resonates with her outstanding personal achievement; an immigrant of Arabic origins, she was a unique voice in a profession that was never considered appropriate for women. It is no coincidence that she was the first, and so far only, woman to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2004, which marked a turning point in her career.
In the 1970s she was part of the deconstructivist movement, having studied at the Architectural Association in London, and worked at the new Office for Metropolitan Architecture as part of the circle surrounding Rem Koolhaas. However, Hadid soon became independent, opening her own London-based architecture practice in 1980, with a clear will to experiment. By 1983 she had already won her first competition, with a futuristic research and design project for The Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong. In Hadid's lesser-known early drawings we can see the blueprint of an urban cartography; a stratified, refracted, almost geological view of modern urban life which experimented with new techniques in research and investigation.
Her groundbreaking vision was confirmed in the celebrated exhibition “Deconstructivism in Architecture” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988, which Hadid actively participated in alongside Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and many other members of that vanguard movement. From then on Hadid combined her architectural and design work with a permanent professorship at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design. This combination provides a key to understanding both her formative roots in the avant-garde, and her complex artistic and intellectual personality.
The early nineties brought the first material results of Hadid’s research. The 1994 Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein revealed a concept of space characterised by the use of lightweight exteriors, sharp angles and prismatic shapes. Yet the experimentation with lighting and the integration of the building into the landscape anticipated her later work. She pursued an aesthetic vision that took in every aspect of design, from exterior structures, to interiors and furniture; as confirmed by her design for the Moon Soon Restaurant in Sapporo, Japan in 1990. With this new creation Hadid offered an interpretation of decentred space inspired by the Japanese city’s traditional ice buildings.
In contrast to the sharp angles of her early work, her later projects came to make greater use of sweeping curves, spirals, fluid lines and spaces. Structure became a form of landscape, proving that the "controlled chaos" of deconstructivism could become a material reality. During the second half of the nineties Hadid's style was evolving away from the use of flat surfaces to become much more volumetric and spatial. This can be seen, for example, in the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which was began in 1997 and completed in 2003. This ambitious work, her first in the USA, perfectly displays her quest for new, integrative models of urban design for both interiors and exteriors. In fact, the entrance hall and the building’s surroundings were organised into an "urban carpet", which formed a continuous surface between the street outside and the interior. Beginning on the corner where the building stands, the surface curves up and inside, rising until it becomes the back wall.
Contemporaty art center Lois & Richard Rosenthal in Cincinnati
This groundbreaking concept evolved further with the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome (MAXXI). Inspired by the serpentine waters of the River Tiber, the building develops the idea of an open urban campus over which the interior spaces extend to include or integrate the entire city. Its elaborate forms, sinuous contours and varied, overlapping dimensions create a spatially complex, yet always functional structure. Both the interior and exterior surfaces of its curved walls are used to exhibit projections and installations, capturing the attention of visitors.
National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome (MAXXI)
From the beginning of the new millennium Hadid's powerful projects confirmed time and again her goal to break with architectural convention in whatever she did; turning buildings into landscapes and rethinking their physical and formal limits. For example, the Guangzhou Opera House in China is probably one of her most spectacular works in terms of its monumental dimensions. However, despite the sheer size, the fluid movement and dialogue between its four large independent structures do not clash with the other urban spaces of that rich Chinese city, where it functions as a cultural nerve centre.
Guangzhou Opera House
Of course, the relationship between the building and the city is a constant theme in her work. The Bridge Pavilion, constructed for the Expo 2008 in Zaragoza, is a paradigm example and one of the most representative works of her career. This extremely complex work of engineering combines technical virtuosity with functionality; the contents and interiors were designed to be a space of collective reflection on the theme of sustainable development, hosting the exhibition “Water – A Unique Resource”. The fact that this dialogue on water is realised over a river as symbolic as the Ebro not only accentuates the scale of the global challenge, but acts as a window into the heart of the city, which it invites us to contemplate "from within".
In a world structured by shapes, Hadid's groundbreaking projects broke with the habitual, the lineal. Her style demonstrated a perfect command of non-rectilineal forms, particularly three-dimensional shapes. The elegant, undulating exterior surface of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku has a geometric fluidity, folding in on itself to form both the concert hall and the interior hall. Moreover, her style came to dispose of traditional decorations, as seen in the London Aquatics centre, one of the main venues for the 2012 Olympics. The use of concrete to make the wave-shaped roof creates a texture that also serves as a form of ornamentation.
Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku
Zaha Hadid's unexpected death at 85 has left a void in the still young history of 21st century architecture that cannot be filled. Her multi-faceted talent as architect, designer and teacher combined technical, artistic and intellectual qualities of inestimable value. All of this has forged an international reputation that extends far beyond the many accolades she justifiably received from the public and media in her lifetime. It is still too early to say whether her powerful contribution and formidable architectural personality will survive the customary criticisms and hasty judgements of the day. Only the discourse of future generations will confirm this undeniably iconic female architect's place in history. As seen in her petal-like sculpture "Kloris", Hadid's work opens up form to a myriad of new possibilities and more organic ways of representing architectural thought. That is why her life's work, which constantly challenged and reimagined the spaces and landscapes of the future, will continue after her death.
(Translated from the Spanish by Ben Riddick)
- Written by Kilian Lavernia
“I only survived thanks to art. It gave me faith in my own existence." And this is how bluntly Tracey Emin (Surrey, 1963) writes in her explosive autobiography Strangeland (Sceptre, 2005; Spanish translation published 2016), a collection of personal writings and reminiscences that allow us an insight into an undoubtedly complex persona. And this without falling into the trap of clichéd judgements on her provocativeness or exhibitionism, precisely because her personal history and her artistic identity are intertwined so fascinatingly and so irreverently. She has made what was once cutting-edge ~ the merging of intimacy, art and life to make something insoluble ~ into a new, confessional-style, conventional artform. For this reason, Emin's artistic output cannot be fully understood without reference to her life and this is not to state the obvious just for the sake of it.
“I only survived thanks to art. It gave me faith in my own existence." And this is how bluntly Tracey Emin (Surrey, 1963) writes in her explosive autobiography Strangeland (Sceptre, 2005; Spanish translation published 2016), a collection of personal writings and reminiscences that allow us an insight into an undoubtedly complex persona. And this without falling into the trap of clichéd judgements on her provocativeness or exhibitionism, precisely because her personal history and her artistic identity are intertwined so fascinatingly and so irreverently. She has made what was once cutting-edge ~ the merging of intimacy, art and life to make something insoluble ~ into a new, confessional-style, conventional artform.
For this reason, Emin's artistic output cannot be fully understood without reference to her life and this is not to state the obvious just for the sake of it. With a painfully complicated childhood and adolescence (raped at thirteen, incest, abortions, anorexia, alcoholism, poverty, social rejection, …), the artist here reveals her recurring episodes of suffering, humiliation and trauma with brutal and unchecked frankness. She uses artistic creation to recreate her own memories. It's almost akin to therapy, aiding her recovery from certain periods in her life, all of which were marked by searing pain and resentment. Tracey Emin is a survivor of her own adolescent meltdown. Sex, drug abuse and hangovers were her environment while art was a private, stable place away from all of that. So the clarity with which she expresses herself in her memoirs is a visceral nudity of no little discomfort: “I'm alcoholic, neurotic, psychotic, a whinging loser obsessed with myself but I'm an artist."
"Monument Valley" (1995-97) (Image available at proyectoidis.org/tracey-emin/)
Beyond the autobiographical rawness of Strangeland, however, her artistic consolidation over the last few years allows for a more integral, subtle stocktaking of her contribution to contemporary art history. Emin belongs to that tradition of artists initiated by Dadaists such as Duchamp, through the dreamy, autobiographical oneirism of Frida Kahlo, the darkest manifestations of expressionism by Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch or the pop art of Robert Rauschemberg and as recent as the conceptual exhibitionism of Sophie Calle.
"The last great adventure is you" (Image available at gbphotos.photoshelter.com)
During the 80's, Emin studied fine art at London's Royal College of Art, a period from which very little work remains as she herself destroyed it. It was here that she became part of the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs), alongside Damien Hirst, Mark Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Marcus Harvey and the Chapman brothers, who began exhibiting at the start of the 90's with Charles Saatchi as their patron, a gallery owner and advertising executive with a keen eye for promotion and cultural marketing.
The recurring nature of Emin's excesses became the narrative of her work in those early days of celebrity: drawings, photography, patchwork, videos, installations ... Her entire output reflected the impact of her memories, as in the early performance piece at a Stockholm gallery: Exorcism of the last painting I ever made (1996). Here, fully naked, she painted walls and pictures with autobiographical themes, and thereby unlocked a longterm emotional blockage - that of her two abortions - whilst at the same time and from a clearly feminist standpoint, criticising so-called “women’s work” by the flaunting of her own flesh, sexuality and corporality.
Of course, the seminal symbol of those excesses was My bed (1998), the work that got her shortlisted for the Turner Prize and is arguably her best known piece and the most controversial one of her career. The fact that it was bought at auction in 2014 for £2,200,000 by a German collector only confirms the ironic transformative power of our perception concerning the most provocative of art. To paraphrase the well-known proverb, 'sometimes when you don't make your bed, you don't have to lie in it'. Because it's on loan to and on permanent exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London!
The piece consists of her own unmade bed, the sheets stained with bodily fluids and the surrounding floor littered with rubbish such as condoms, empty cigarette packets, bottles of alcohol, newspaper cuttings, knickers soiled with menstrual blood and other assorted domestic debris. The sexual promiscuity along with the alcohol and drug abuse, that played a major part in Emin's life at that point, made the devastatingly intimate scene a spectacle and a display of her confessional art, to which the viewer became an involuntary voyeur. My bed could be considered, although not without a certain provocation, an organic self-portrait by the artist, an exploration of herself from a place of collapse and emotional crisis. Pure, unadulterated reference-to-self. Or, in her own words: “the absolute disaster and decadence of my life”.
"My bed" (Photograpy by Niklas Halle'n)
In the same vein is Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95, a tent adorned with their names, including sexual partners, relatives she shared a bed with in childhood, her twin brother and her two terminated pregnancies. The crude depiction of those memories is then not only a written roll-call of her lovers and loved-ones, in a kind of womb-bedroom, it's also defending, and this as a powerful message, the role reversal implicit in a more self-conscious and aggressive female sexuality, a woman who "womanizes". Perhaps it was this feeling of discomfiture that made a visiting journalist exclaim: “But she's even slept with the curator!"
The evolution of Emin's work has also been characterised by a transition towards other fields of experimentation. The early photography and painting exhibitions, for instance the delicate watercolours of Berlin The Last Week in April 1998, the performances and installations of her most wild-child time, when she even dared to appear drunk on primetime television, started to show, from 2000 onwards, her artistic debt to Schiele. Immortalised in the sinuous limbs and exposed vulvas of The Purple Virgins, shown at the 2007 Biennial, a clear line can be traced back to him which continued in later erotic-leaning works such as the Suffer Love series (2009). It was, therefore, not at all surprising when in 2007 she was awarded the chair of Professor of Drawing at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, where she has also curated some summer exhibitions.
Artistic recognition and critical acclaim have gone hand in hand with huge media interest in her public sculpture and montages. While it's true that she had already explored the genre before, her own face in Death Masks (2002) for instance, it was now that her sculptures had their full impact. When she designed a mast for outside Liverpool Cathedral, 4 meters high, bronze-plated, crowned with an emblematic Liver Bird in hommage to the city, she sealed an alliance not only with the BBC, who had commissioned it, but also, in a way, with the English establishment itself.
When, a few years later, she returned to install one of her neon messages above the cathedral's main doors, she only ratified that position. Neon, traditionally a publicity tool of language to attract our attention and sell us something, manages to break free from that association through the intimate nature of its content: I Felt You And I Knew You Loved Me. Few times, if ever, has a church been quite so daring.
"I felt you and I knew you loved me" (Image available at mathi.eu)
In any case, bronze as well as wood have played a major role over the last decade. From It's not the way I want to die (2005) and Tower (2007), through the delicate sculptures (shoes, teddy bears, children's socks) scattered throughout Kent in 2008 and of undeniable social import, up to the most recent The Last Great Adventure is You (2014), to name but a few.
The validity of Emin's work remains undeniable, the theory she produces considerable. Remember that it was Emin and her radical feminist consciousness who, before the "selfie" era and the social media explosion, was first to expose such intimacy and vulnerable sexuality. She gave visibility to loneliness, sentimental failure and the alienation of success. Emin is an enfant terrible who made it into the Hall Of Fame of the most acclaimed (millionaire) artists of today, much to the detriment of British political correctness.
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
"Welcome Always" (2008)
Tracey Emin at the CAC in Malaga (Photography by Jesús Dominguez /EFE)
Tracey Emin: What do artists do all day (in English)
- Written by Clelia
Banksy is the pseudonym of the most high-profile graffiti painter in contemporary Street Art. Although there are no concrete biographical facts to go by, it is believed he was born in the outskirts of Bristol in 1974, later moving into the city where he spent his adolescence. A recent study by Queen Mary University in London identified the artist as Robin Gunningham and confirmed he grew up in Bristol. According to the illustrator and graphic designer Tristan Manco, one of the most ardent researchers into urban art, the controversial Banksy was an apprentice butcher before getting into graffiti during the 80's "aerosol boom". In the 90's, he was a gang member of Bristol’s DryBreadZ crew, aka DBZ, at which time his fame began to spread like wildfire, mainly due to his tit-for-tat overpainting war with the top graffiti artist of the day, King Robbo.
Banksy is the pseudonym of the most high-profile graffiti painter in contemporary Street Art. Although there are no concrete biographical facts to go by, it is believed he was born in the outskirts of Bristol in 1974, later moving into the city where he spent his adolescence. A recent study by Queen Mary University in London identified the artist as Robin Gunningham and confirmed he grew up in Bristol.
According to the illustrator and graphic designer Tristan Manco, one of the most ardent researchers into urban art, the controversial Banksy was an apprentice butcher before getting into graffiti during the 80's "aerosol boom". In the 90's, he was a gang member of Bristol’s DryBreadZ crew, aka DBZ, at which time his fame began to spread like wildfire, mainly due to his tit-for-tat overpainting war with the top graffiti artist of the day, King Robbo, whose work along Regent's Canal in Camden Banksy took the liberty of "revamping" repeatedly until, on learning of the late Robbo's comatose condition, he put an end to their feud and paid his rival a series of heartfelt tributes.
Robbo inc, availible at streetartlondon.co.uk
On the 12th of July 2008, the Mail on Sunday announced it had discovered his real identity, revealing his name as Robin Gunningham, which the actual Mr Gunningham has always denied when questioned. According to other sources, his real name might be Robert Banks or Robin Banks although the latter would appear to be a play on the words "robbing banks".
Whatever the case may be, mystery still surrounds him. According to Will Simpson, secretary of the Bristol Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls football club, the artist accompanied them on a 2001 tour of Mexico in which he played matches against the Zapatista Liberty Fighters. There exist photographs of him painting a wall mural in honour of their cause, his pixelated face well-hidden under a handkerchief and no other discernible clues to his identity whatsoever. Those photos were published in the book 'Freedom Through Football: The Story Of The Easton Cowboys & Cowgirls'.
Banksy painting a mural in Mexico, availible at www.12ozprophet.com
In his book 'Wall And Street', Banksy remembers his early days as a street artist spraying the paint directly onto the wall. This technique required time, however, which posed a risk as graffiti was neither art nor legal at that time. He, therefore, began handcutting and using cardboard stencils and carspray to speed up the process and which had the added bonus of making his murals look far more 'accomplished'.
The term 'Street Art' encompasses all forms of artistic expression whose setting is outdoors, urban and, ostensibly, illegal. At the start, these paintings or texts left on walls, buildings and train carriages were given the name graffiti. Their origins can be traced back to the Afro-American and Latino ghettos of 60's New York as a reaction to the conditions and oppression they were living in. The earliest graffiti artists shared cultural tastes in music, dance and fashion and it was here that hip-hop was born. Later on, more artistic techniques came to be used, namely stencilling, wheat-pasted poster art, templates, installations, sculpture and sticker art.
The messages implicit therein were invariably politically or socially critical, as are Banksy's: "A wall is a very large weapon. It's one of the most unpleasant things you can hit someone with."
Few images illustrate this idea better than his "Maid In London" mural where a uniformed maid sweeps rubbish behind a wall as if to say: what we don't want to see, we hide from view.
Maid in London, availible at academics.skidmore.edu
Banksy began by painting rats all over the streets of Bristol which served as his instrument of ridicule against 'The System'. Influenced by, among others, the punk band Crass and the Ad Jammers movement which focused on deforming and transforming publicity images and thereby their message, Banksy's work has always sought out a social or moral criticism, in the guise of irony or satire, in the form of writing, stencilling or graffiti.
But if anyone was ever Banksy's inspiration or influence, it was Blek le Rat, a prolific Parisian graffiti artist of the early 80's. It was from him that he copied the stencil and aerosol technique as a means of expressing his criticisms and complaints: "Every time I think I've painted something vaguely original, I find out Blek already did it, better, 20 years earlier."
If graffiti changed anything – It would be illegal, availible at news.fitzrovia.org.uk
After those initial rat-taking-photos-of-passers-by or rat-listening-to-music graffitis came more work that continued to criticise social hypocrisies, only now they were also appearing on postboxes, doorways and drains. His 1988 "Naked" can still be seen on the façade of Park Street Clinic and it's not alone: a whole series of creations decorated first Bristol and then London, well-known examples being the two policemen kissing, the MonaLisa with bazuka rifle or the fleeing natives chased by a supermarket trolley.
Mona Lisa With Bazooka Rocket, availible at nohaycomolodeuno.blogspot.com.es
By then, he was already collaborating with an agent, Steve Lazarides, a former photographer who had documented Banksy's first teenage forays into graffiti art and with whom he shared the running of his website where both of them added photographs of each and every new creation and thanks to which there is still a record of those that have since been erased, demolished or painted over. Lazarides confesses to having helped organise the infamous stunts which involved infiltrating the world's most famous museums and dislaying Banksy art clandestinely, as happened at London's Natural History Museum with a dissected rat pinned inside a frame. And that was not all. In the British Museum, for instance, they managed to hang an apparent landscape painting that on closer inspection revealed a hunt scene with a supermarket trolley. New York’s MOMA unwittingly displayed his portrait of a lady in period costume wearing a gasmask. "Art will be neither beauty nor novelty. It will be effective and it will be troubling," according to the artist.
His work reached another level after being installed surreptitiously and viewed in four New York museums (the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, Natural History and Modern Art) and also when his street art started being seen across the world in other large cities like Melbourne and París. Come the year 2000, he decided to organise a solo exhibition and did so on the Severnshed, a floating restaurant, thereby distinguishing himself from all other street artists. Then, in 2003, came another exhibition, this time in London while later, in 2005 and 2007, two of the most important and striking creations of his career ~ the Gaza and West Bank murals.
Banksy, availible at prospectornow.com
Banksy, who considered it "the world's largest open-air prison", covered the 'Wall Of Shame' on the West Bank with al fresco paintings that spelled out his opposition. Pictures of little girls clutching balloons in an attempt to escape, glimpses of blue sky and idyllic landscapes seen through holes and cracks are a cry for attention against its construction and existence. The repercussions were such that, even today, there is an alternative sightseeing tour to visit them.
Girl and Soldier by Banksy, availible at http://www.stencilrevolution.com/
By this point, Banksy's works could be found all over the world, everywhere from Los Angeles to Barcelona. Amongst them, imitations of Miguelangelo's "David" wearing a bullet-proof vest and Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", completely withered. In 2006 he painted an emaciated, malnourished black child wearing that crown associated with a very well-known fast-food chain.
One successful show that stands out is his 'Banksy Versus Bristol Museum' in 2009 which involved closing the building to the public for three days while secret, large-scale preparations were made. The irony of this all being financed by those who had previously censored him was not lost on Banksy who remarked: "This is the first exhibition I've ever held where the donors' money has been used to display my work rather than erase it."
Availible at www.plataformadeartecontemporaneo.com
One of the main bones of contention between his followers and detractors is the extortionate price paid for some of his work. For such an anti-establishment and stern critic of capitalism, it seems to some rather ironic that his works are amongst the most expensive on the market. For this reason, some street artists accuse him of having "sold out" to the powers that be. Banksy, who once said that "Commercial success is a disaster for graffiti artists", saw his set of portraits of Kate Moss in the style of Warhol's "Marilyn Monroe" sell for $80,000 at Sothesby's in 2006. And then again in April 2007, his "Space Girl & Bird" (spray paint on steel) sold for half a million dollars. A few months later, Bonham's sold ten of his works for a total of half a million pounds sterling (€700,000). And the bids show no sign of stopping there. Nevertheless, in 2013, Banksy decided to open a pop-up street stall near Central Park selling original, signed canvasses for $60 each. Oddly, only eight of them were ever bought.
Kate Moss, availible at www.banksy-prints.com
During his New York tour that same year, Banksy carried out an illegal exhibition called "Better Out Than In" whereby he created a different artwork every day somewhere on the city streets. He tweeted: "Looking forward to getting my hands dirty tonight!" And he most certainly did, using graffiti, sculpture and even video to get his characteristically sarcastic humour across.
Never far from controversy, there are many who have denigrated his work: some calling it vandalism; others pure hypocrisy for criticising capitalism whilst working for large corporations like Puma and MTV. For others, take for example Gareth Williams, head of Urban Art at Bonham's in London: "The most incredible thing about the Banksy phenomenon is not his meteoric rise, nor the high prices collectors pay, but the fact that the very establishment he satirises has welcomed him with open arms."
Rat Photographer,availible at www.whatsonyourwall.com
And so to the controversy surrounding his 2010 documentary entitled "Exit Through The Gift Shop". Many were hoping for all to be revealed about their mysterious artist but hoping was as far as they got. The documentary was nominated for an Oscar, as well as an Independent Spirit Award and a BAFTA, and got excellent newspaper reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Sun Times to name but two. In it, Banksy introduces us to Thierry Guetta, a French man living in Los Angeles, whose unique obsession is filming the artist on video. The two meet and Banksy decides to turn the camera instead on Guetta, persuading him to infiltrate the Urban Art world with the alias Mr. Brainwash and turning him into a celebrity in his own right.
Clips from "Exit Through The Gift Shop" (Thierry, Banksy: Can marketing create an artist?)
And this is where the controversy took off. Is what the documentary says about Mr. Brainwash fact or fiction? Is he an actor or for real? For many, it was just an elaborate montage of Banksy's to show what has become of street art, namely just another consumer product, an investment opportunity seized upon by the upper classes and Thierry Guetta or Mr. Brainwash was nothing other than the alter-ego of Banksy himself. And to thicken the plot further, the artist Ron English confirmed that Thierry Guetta was totally real and that Banksy himself had explained in conversation his motives for making the film ~ to ridicule Guetta for his egoism in refusing to share hundreds of hours worth of filming the artist in action.
Girl with a pierced Eardrum found at Banksy.co.uk
In October 2014, Banksy created a new graffiti 'portrait' of "Girl With A Pierced Eardrum", a parody of Vermeer's" Girl with a Pearl Earring" in which he exchanged the jewel for a security alarm on the front wall of a recording studio in Hanover Place, Bristol. The work got a lot of media attention, especially because it was done back in the artist’s hometown and shortly after the rumours of his alleged arrest started to circulate. 24 hours later, however, the work was ruined by black paint in a clear act of vandalism and antagonism towards its author. And nor was this the first, last or only time Banksy's work would be damaged: his "Art Buff" in Kent, for one instance, was vandalised with a crude penis. Due to the prominence he has achieved over the last few years, however, some of his public artworks are now protected behind sheets of clear perspex, allowing them to be protected or restored more easily.
One of Banksy's murals before being cut into 3 pieces and moved to an exhibition. Found at banksy.co.uk
One of the most recent exhibitions on the artist, set up by The Sincura Group under the title "The Stealing Banksy", took place in London in 2014, exhibiting 7 street artworks that were then to be auctioned afterwards. Not for the first time, Banksy vociferously rejected the whole project despite the organisers assuring him of the building owners' consent. He is quoted as calling it "simply disgusting that anyone can take art off walls without permission."
Banksy's Dismaland. Published in Flickr by Peter Gasston
In August 2015, Banksy inaugurated the temporary, theme-park-styled installation "Dismaland" in collaboration with 58 other artists. When this closed its doors, the construction team moved what they dismantled to a refugee camp in Calais and built various housing units and a playground funfair for refugee families. After the recent, forced evacuation of the camp, the official Dismaland website (http://www.dismaland.co.uk/) says simply: "Dismaland Calais has now closed".
Son Of A Syrian Immigrant. Found at Banksy.co.uk
That December, a new Banksy painting entitled "The Son of a Syrian Immigrant" appeared on a camp wall, picturing the late billionaire Apple founder Steve Jobs with a bag of belongings slung over his shoulder. It is a clear attack on the conditions endured by Syrian migrants in the infamous "Jungle” camp at the French port.
Found at banksy.co.uk
His criticism of the situation continued into January of this year when his first interactive artwork appeared. On a wooden board placed outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, he painted Cosette, the little girl from the "Les Misérables" poster, with a ripped French flag behind her, tears rolling down her cheeks and a billowing canister of teargas below. A scannable QR code at the bottom of the picture links to a Youtube video showing police firing teargas whilst raiding the camp in Calais, on 5th January 2016. Photos of the picture went viral and 42 hours later, thieves attempted to steal it which meant the Metropolitan police were forced to intervene and safeguard it.
In February, the portion of wall in question was completely covered over by Cheval Property Management Limited who own the land the building stands on. They confirmed this as a temporary measure, however, until such time as the "future plans for the work are decided".
From 13th January til 29th February 2016, Banksy's works were on show for the first time in Istambul in the exhibition "The Art of Banksy" with the patronage of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. The exhibition, coinciding with the inauguration of the Global Karaköy gallery, took a group of 80 experts almost a year to set up, taking it upon themselves to track down, requisition and catalogue the artist's last 15 years of work. "Banksy has done a huge amount of artwork, the majority of which has never been seen by many people. I've managed to get hold of it thanks to collectors who made a massive effort to reveal the pieces and their whereabouts," said Steve Lazarides, the exhibition's curator, who also confirmed it as the most extensive ever undertaken of the work of the elusive Banksy.
Visitors to the exhibition were able to enjoy it in singular fashion as it included detailed replicas of both the streets of London and Banksy's studio workshop, allowing them to access more closely and experience more vividly the context of the graffiti's creation and the poetic, critical and humorous energy of this mysterious and much-talked-about artist.
The artist in his studio
Whatever might or might not be going on around him, it's undeniable that Banksy is the most sought-after, controversial and admired artist in his field. He doesn't need publicity, nor does he seek approval because his creations speak for themselves and provoke reflection in those who view them. Too many of his pictures have disappeared, like, for instance, nearly all of those to do with the 2012 London Olympics. People have tried to thwart him by ruining his work, destroying and damaging it or stealing it to sell on at exhorbitant prices. Many others, however, find his work and words inspiring, aspire to follow in his footsteps and imitate his unmistakable style.
Banksy vs Bristol Museum
Picture Gallery: Banksy - Works, click on the photos to see them full sized
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)