04 March 2014

Signs, sign, everywhere a sign

Clet Abraham lining out on the River Seine
Pont d'Arcole, Paris, 8th February, 2014
I had a meeting in a London office building yesterday and was greeted in the lobby by a David Mach sculpture of an astronaut. Mach makes rather impressive giant sculptures from coat hangers, and was the subject of an amazing show in Galway back in 2012. The astronaut, I was informed, normally rises up and down the inside of the building, but yesterday must have been a bit worse for wear celebrating the triumph of Gravity at the Oscars the night before, for sadly he was completely stationary, even when I threatened to throw George Clooney's frozen corpse at him.

The piece was commissioned by the firm that built the building, and while I was pleasantly surprised to see it, I was also saddened by the fact that it existed purely as decoration, part of the building fit out like the choice of carpet or the style of taps in the bathrooms.

Getting locked on Great Ormond Street.
Great Ormond Street, London, 4th March, 2014
As recent readers may have noticed, I've been struggling lately to reconcile my understanding of art as a means of communication between the artist and viewer, and the reality of its place as a commodity or lifestyle accessory for the capitalist elite. Walking through the galleries of London and Paris and being forced to accept the role that that wealth has played in being the ultimate arbiter of what society considers to be 'good art', I've been left asking myself to what degree does the commodification of communication render its message void?

Can a piece still speak to me when it has been relegated to, or created solely to be, the wallpaper of the 1%?

Queen Square gets the snip.
Queen Square, London, 4th March, 2014
I was thinking about this last night as The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I took a walk through the evening streets of London. We came across a few more pieces of street art by Clet Abraham, a French artist based in Florence. Abraham alters street signs, toying with the basic geometric shapes by pasting over his own modified designs that are simple, yet playful.

Since we first saw one back in January, we've noticed them all over the city, and even came across one in Paris last month (though no doubt there were many more we walked by obliviously). They never prevent the sign from carrying out its function and are often passed by the hurrying hordes who rarely stop to look up at the world that surrounds them, but standing back and watching the reaction of those who do notice I have never failed to see a smile on their lit up faces.

Fighting the power in Covent Garden.
Endell Street, London, 2nd March, 2014
If the purpose of art is to act as a medium for the artist to communicate, then surely the wider the communication the more effective that communication has been? How can a piece locked away in a vault or hanging lifelessly in a plutocrat's penthouse be considered art if its message never reaches beyond the eyes of the oligarch who possesses it? Does the act of possession itself reduce art to mere possession, with no more merit than a display of books on a coffee table intended to give visitors a false sense of one's cultural vigour?

If Abraham's intent is to bring joy to the hearts of all who see his work and then everyday thousands see his pieces on city streets across Europe with a smile on their faces without ever even knowing his name, is that not a greater validation of their classification as art than a trophy installation in an office lobby ignored by the grey suits that pass by in smartphone-chattering isolation?

Clet Abraham really loves his lines.
Glasshouse Street, London, 25th January, 2014
I'm not suggesting that these questions are original or new, just new to Unkie Dave. There are many things that are difficult to reconcile with one's strongly held beliefs, but the implications of art as capital are becoming harder for me to ignore.

Which is sad, because sometimes I just want to sit and look at the pretty pictures without the moralising voices in my head putting on their best Captain Buzzkill hats.

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