SINGAPORE: Earlier this week, 10 street artists from all over the world were in Singapore secretly working on wall murals.
But they weren’t out on the streets playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities at night.
Instead, these artists worked their aerosol magic inside the pristine premises of the ArtScience Museum, where their only problem was coping with paint fumes inside the enclosed air-conditioned galleries.
The freshly-made works – from the likes of Indonesia’s Eko Nugroho, Singapore’s Speak Cryptic, and Sheryo & Yok, and France’s Ludo – can be seen in Art From The Streets, a new exhibition that opens Saturday (Jan 13).
Once on the counter-culture fringes, street artists have forced their way into the mainstream. Led by high-profile figures like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, they’ve become pop culture icons and art world heroes.
And the show, which looks at the movement's 40-year history through more than 200 murals, installations and other works, attempts to reveal just how far street art has come.
STREET ART REVOLUTION
Beginning with a nod to its gritty roots in Philadelphia during the 1960s and the consequent blossoming in New York City in the 1970s, Art From The Streets takes us through decades of street art evolution.
We see it branch out from simple graffiti tags on walls and subway trains to the more elaborate use of posters and stencils.
We’re told of how it quickly spread from the US to Europe during a brief period from 1983 to 1984 – and subsequently, the world.
We’re also introduced to works by pioneers like Futura, current biggies like JR, and the ultimate giants such as Fairey and Invader.
The section featuring the latter, in particular, is the show’s strongest section.
There’s a sizeable selection of Fairey’s political works, including his Obama “Hope” poster and an awe-inspiring gigantic Middle East Mural.
Invader’s Space Invader-inspired mosaics are given proper context to reveal the ambition behind the tongue-in-cheek humour – in installing these video game icons all over the world, he is creating his own Find-My-Invader street art “game”.
WHERE’S SOUTHEAST ASIA (AND BANKSY)?
But while the show’s curator, Magda Danysz, points out how street art has become the first “really global” art movement in history (where future Picassos may emerge, she adds), the show itself somewhat falls short with its highly Western-centric content.
For a show touted to be the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, very little of the region is actually represented.
Aside from the three Indonesian and Singaporean artists who created site-specific murals, there are none from neighbouring countries, which have all experienced a street art boom in recent years.
There are a couple from China, too, but that’s about it for Asian representation.
There are other also some head-scratching omissions. For one, hip-hop’s role in street art’s development seems merely implied.
And ironically, for an art museum show, there’s no mention of familiar crossover artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom have links to New York’s graffiti scene (the former began with chalk drawings on subways and the latter was once part of a duo called SAMO).
And what of the world’s most famous street artist today?
Although there’s a huge wallpaper photo of a New York mural at the show’s entrance, there’s actually only one Banksy work here.
It’s a disappointingly small canvas work titled Rat And Heart – enclosed in glass case on a pedestal in the middle of a room.
THE STREET IN STREET ART
Intentionally or otherwise, it’s this image of Banksy – who’s as much a politically engaged urban prankster as he is an art world darling – reduced to some kind of hallowed object that reveals how this street art survey exhibition is framed.
One of the aims of the show, says curator Danysz, is to prove that street art is of a level befitting museums and galleries. It’s not hard to see Art From The Streets as the story of an underground movement’s journey to mainstream co-optation.
The museum’s executive director Honor Harger mentions how street art began as “acts of rebellion” in the 1970s.
Walking around the show, one can’t help but ask: How much of this rebellion is left when something is plucked from the streets? How much “street” is there in these street art works?
Time and again, the exhibition brings up these tensions.
The “proper” artworks are guarded by railings while the museum’s new mural commissions aren’t – what’s the difference?
During the media tour, only one artist, up-and-coming Argentinian-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone, insisted on anonymity; his face not be shown in any publicity or interviews.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that it’s all inside a museum and not outside. While there are some instances of pieces offering a glimpse of street cred context, you’d have to imagine it really hard for the most part.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
The show’s organisers do try to address this. You could consider the 10 new commissions as a way of showing a semblance of spontaneity – street artists in action on-site.
A few of them are also actually taking to the streets: Speak Cryptic has painted on a bus, while Remi Rough and Pantone are both creating new works for two other events at Little India and Gillman Barracks under Singapore Art Week. All sanctioned, of course.
But you can also look at the general lack of grit as a crucial – if perhaps accidental or unacknowledged – comment on where the movement stands today.
It's perhaps inevitable that street art has become a regular presence in the contemporary art network of fairs, auctions, galleries, festivals and museums.
When once graffiti and murals were dreaded proof of neighbourhoods in decline, these are now more associated with gentrification (Hi, Brooklyn) and tourism (Hi, Penang).
Nevertheless, Art From The Streets is still an ambitious show that spray paints a historical portrait of such a vital, global creative force.
Despite only scratching the surface, it’s worth a visit – even if there’s only one tiny Banksy seen from behind a glass case.