On March 18, 2016, a massive exhibition dedicated to the history of graffiti and street art opened in the Italian city of Bologna. Entitled Street Art: Banksy & Co, it is hosted by Genus Bononiae, within the spaces of Palazzo Pepoli, and backed by Fondazione Carisbo, a bank foundation. More than 250 pieces are currently on view, including some of street art’s most notable names, such as Banksy, Os Gemeos, John Fekner, Rammellzee. Aiming to put a spotlight on the phenomenon of this kind of contemporary creativity from 1980s onward, the show will present a part of the renowned Martin Wong collection to the Italian audience for the first time. Divided into three thematic sections, the exhibition presents the concept of the city as a case study of social and cultural dynamics, at the same time showing the visitors the way these forms of urban art have been archived since the 1970s.
But apart from the rich content on display at Genus Bononiae, the Street Art: Banksy & Co exhibition was in the media spotlight for another reason as well. In a quite radical manner, one of the show’s participants expressed his unhappiness about being involved in it by painting over 20 years of murals in the city over the course of a few days. Of course, we’re talking about Blu, one of Italy’s most prolific street artists, whose artworks have been taken down by the exhibition organisers without his permission to put on view at the museum. In protest, the artist removed all the remaining ones from the walls of Bologna, leaving the art world to discuss about the meaning and the legitimacy of the decisions made on both sides.
While Blu released a statement through his fellow street art crew, Wu Ming, we reached out to urban art curator Christian Omodeo, to hear the other side of the story. Mr. Omodeo is one of the three people behind the curatorial concept of the Street Art: Banksy & Co exhibition, together with Luca Ciancabilla, an expert in restoration, and Sean Corcoran of the Museum of the City of New York. In the interview below, find out why these murals have been taken down, what will happen to them once the show in Bologna is over, and how the team sees Blu’s controversial act of dissidence. Scroll down!
Widewalls: Tell us about the Street Art – Banksy & Co. L’arte allo stato urbano exhibition in Bologna. What can the visitors see?
Christian Omodeo: First of all, I’d say, it is one of the biggest retrospective ever dedicated to graffiti & street art, with more or less 300 artworks, photos, videos, documents coming both from Europe and US, and belonging to public and private collections.
In the last decade, there’s a growing interest surrounding urban art, but people do not really know its history. This is why we have decided to offer to everyone the possibility to take a look at the history of the New York graffiti scene, to understand how, in the pre-Google era, graffiti culture had contributed to the appearance of something that has been called “street art” and, finally, to explain clearly that tagging is a fundamental part of these cultures, and that you cannot “buff” it – we should not only keep the legal part of urban art.
Then, the exhibition also focuses on how urban art has been collected since the 1970s, in order to raise awareness on how institutions and collectors are keeping the memory of these cultures. It’s a fundamental part of the show. In all likelihood, museums will soon include urban art in their collections. However, at the moment, there has not been a real analysis of how that should be done. The risk, for urban art as for all the other subcultures and countercultures that arise during the 20th century, is to lack objectivity: are we considering urban art only from an aesthetic point of view? Or do we have to look at it as a culture, from an anthropological/ethnographical point of view? In the first case, we should search for “institutional” artworks, while forgetting all these names of those who did not want to be part of the art world. In the second one, on the contrary, we should search for objects that can represent this culture.
Widewalls: The “detachment” of street artworks from the streets caused quite an uproar, and it is done without the permission of the artist who painted these pieces. How do you justify such decision?
CO: Let me begin by saying that what we have been reading so far is largely inaccurate – if not simply false. First, I want to make one thing very clear: these walls cannot be sold, and they will be offered to a public institution. Then, we should also remember that Blu has painted several walls in Bologna (between 40 and 50, it has been said). In the last few years, lots of those works have been cancelled or destroyed without a real debate, even when the walls had political significance. Luca Ciancabilla, who is a scholar whose research deals primarily with the history of art restoration, and Camillo Tarozzi, who is a very important art restorer working on artworks by Giotto or Cimabue for example, have started to be interested in urban art a few years ago. They really love it, and were worried by the absence of a debate on its conservation. While Luca was preparing a book on Blu’s walls in Bologna, he had the possibility to save some wall paintings (2 separate walls + 1 group of small walls which were used for one of Blu’s first videos), which were inside a soon-to-be-demolished factory. Together with Camillo, they have thought that this was a unique occasion to save some of the last walls by Blu in Bologna and they were really convinced that the artist would have agreed with them for the following reasons.
First of all, the walls were from 2006, when Blu was often working with art galleries and museums. They carried no explicit political content and, except for one, they were not visible from the street. Last but not least, they would have been soon destroyed. From their point of view, saving these walls would have also opened a debate about Blu’s works in Bologna – both those still existing and those already destroyed – and if and how to preserve them. So, in late 2014, they have asked permission from the owner of the building where one could originally find Blu’s works then included in the exhibition to take down those walls. At the same time, they tried to get in touch with the artist. They received the permission from the owners – with a certain schedule to respect – but Blu did not answer their inquiry. Instead of taking the risk to lose the possibility to work on these walls, they have decided to act. I should also emphasize that they were not sure whether their attempt to remove the works from the original walls would have been successful. (It was a pioneering experiment in these matters.) Of course, through the months, they continued to try to get in touch with Blu.
Let’s make clear another point here: people haven’t clearly realized that – like it or not – what Camillo Tarozzi and his team have done is a major discovery in the technique of art restoration. They have adapted a process of removing wall paintings invented in Bologna in the 18th century to works realized on concrete. When we speak about street pieces, we normally imagine workers cutting a wall with a chainsaw. This has nothing to do with what has happened in Bologna. Here, some highly professional art restorers have taken down a one millimeter film from a concrete wall (12 meters high), and pasted it on a canvas, while preserving the original wall’s appearance. These are researchers who do not make money out of these things and whose only goal was to save these works in order to give them to the city’s museum. When they realized that their operation was successful, they have contacted me. We have then thought about an exhibition intended not only to show the result of their work, but also to open a debate on the restoration and preservation of urban art. By considering the peculiar circumstances, I have proposed to Luca to focus on the following question: how can we bring an urban aesthetics into the art world (museum, galleries)? This was clearly a fundamental point both for artists, who have to carry their street attitude into an institutional context, and for art restorers, who have to understand when, why, and how they can save a street piece. While preparing the exhibition, Blu has finally answered to one of Luca and Camillo’s mail and they scheduled an appointment. Unfortunately, he didn’t show up or give any feedback (either positive or negative), until few days before the opening of the exhibition – as we all know.
Widewalls: So how do you comment on Blu’s decision to remove all of his artwork from Bologna?
CO: I don’t want to judge Blu’s decision. It’s not something that you can praise or condemn, it’s something that you just have to accept and analyze. My impression is that this action has more to do with the larger local political context than with the exhibition per se – though this may have offered an occasion to make a statement about politics in Bologna. This is why I was really surprised that, despite the international up roaring, no journalist has really looked for the deeper causes of the protest in Bologna. No one seems to have noticed that what we have seen was somewhat linked to the upcoming Bologna mayoral election. Outside of Italy (perhaps even in Italy), no one has pointed out that many local graffiti writers and urban artists were part of the exhibition and that some of them such as Cuoghi Corsello, on the night after the buffing, went to paint on the grey walls. These are not pointless details, but important cues showing that – in reality – the situation is far from being so black or white as it has been described on the web.
Widewalls: Do you expect any more responses, perhaps more serious ones, from other artists involved? The Italian law does protect their authorship rights.
CO: The idea that what has been done in Bologna is against the law is a bizarre view – and I’m not sure how people can believe it. As far as I know, in Italy, as everywhere else in the world, an artist cannot claim copyright over a work that has been painted illegally and with no permission from the owner of the building. Think about what is happening with Rime vs. Jeremy Scott and Moschino. This is what lawyers generally call the “unclean hands doctrine”. We agree that such a doctrine is problematic and that we need to rethink it. That’s why we have decided to launch a debate on this topic. Also, there are some people – think about the statement by Wu Ming/Blu – who think that if you take a piece of art from the street, you are necessarily a thief. But this is far from the truth. Different people act for different reasons and with different goals and intentions in mind. Today, luckily more and more often, many act out of their desire to save what they consider as heritage, with no economical purpose. I know that it is a major shift in the world of urban art – a controversial one, too – and that it’s hard to accept it for several artists. But, as far as the exhibition is not the cause of such a shift, how should we manage such situations?
Protesting is fine. Unfortunately, protesting alone does not provide us with useful answers to some pressing questions that we need to address. Do we have to restore graffiti & street art or not? Is it better to keep an artwork in its original context (even when the context has totally changed or this result in its destruction)? Or, can we bring it inside a public museum? What should be the role of photos, videos, and traditional and digital documentation? But our main concern in Bologna – and the core of our curatorial idea – was not merely one of a technical sort: it was the desire to suggest what could be the role of the museum in the next future of urban art. We wanted to think about how a good urban art exhibition should look like.
In recent years, I have seen lots of graffiti & street art museum projects, which were transforming words as revolt, liberty and freedom into nothing else other than marketing tools. I don’t want to outright condemn those projects. I found some of them worthwhile – at least in some respects. However, I have a different idea of what an urban art exhibition should look like, especially if we speak about artists who consider themselves as activists and if we want to focus more on the soul of the anti-globalization movement of the pre-Google era than on the contemporary art market’s strategies. The exhibition in Bologna has to be understood in the light of these reflections. It is one of the first attempts at showing not only urban art, but also the dissent that this art form essentially carries within its nature.
Street Art: Banksy & Co will be on view through June 26 2016.
Featured images in slider: Lee Quiñones - Howard the Duck, 1988. Oil on canvas. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Martin Wong; Sane Smith - Untitled, 1989 ca. Ink on paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Martin Wong; Banksy - Love in the air, 2003. Stencil and spray on cardboard, 66 x 67,50 cm. Collection of C.H., Monaco di Baviera; Blu - Senza Titolo, 2006. Mural painting on canvas, 150 kg (4 pieces). Italian Graffiti Collection. All images courtesy of Genus Bononiae.