Longform // Mnemonic: Street Art and the Invocation of Remembrance

Miso street art Melbourne paste up

Street art’s power to invoke urban remembrance operates on dual levels: at the collective, artworks prompt the revelation of the city as accumulated,memory-laden residue; at the individual, many pieces have the potential to trigger recollection of personal city experiences and of personal pasts more broadly.

First, to examine street art’s role in collective memory. As popular awareness of the presence of street art increases, neglected city space comes under revision in the eyes of city dwellers. Graffiti and street art are almost always associated with neglected or forgotten space — abandoned structures, inaccessible or off-limits zones, secluded places, or interstitial spaces like train lines, fences, and walls.

In Melbourne, this enlivening of urban space has been most evident in the central city’s laneways, where much of Melbourne’s most sophisticated and most viewed street art is created. Originally rarely even noted on maps, these narrow alleys and lanes were built to service the greater streets of Melbourne’s 1830s grid; their concealed presence and public neglect (until tourists discovered them) has made them ideal places for artists to put up unsanctioned stickers, posters, stencils and pieces in privacy.1 Now, where once dwelled only rats and garbage cans, Melburnians sit at hole-in-the-wall bars, cafés and restaurants. It is no coincidence that changes to the licensing laws in the nineties were concurrent with the rise of stencil art in Melbourne.2 Along with unsanctioned street art, official public art programs — such as the Laneway Commissions — facilitate the development of the laneways.3 Under these influences, the once lost spaces of forgetfulness are reinvigorated and reaffirmed as lived spaces in which colourful graffiti art has become, for a segment of the population at least, a prized aesthetic; the laneways are now populated well into the night.

Alongside the rediscovery of forgotten urban spaces, it is also in the nature of all street art to reveal anew the very textures of the those spaces: walls, the basic but often unseen building block of the urban environment, become newly visible when painted or pasted upon, revealing the peculiarities etched into their façades by time. Urban dwellers cognisant of the city’s embellishment begin to walk the city in a different manner: their gaze becomes conditioned to seek textural detail, increasingly receptive to these physical landscapes of the past and of the past’s reworking.

Miso street art Melbourne

Although it is inherent in the nature of street art to thus call attention to the texture of city space, some artists also deliberately reveal a heightened awareness of the relationship between their works and the surface upon which they present them. In the work of Miso, for example, the wall is more than public canvas: it is an essential half of an explicit dialogue between the work and the street itself. Miso deliberately calls attention to small details of the city that, for many who pass by, might otherwise go unnoticed or forgotten. Her elegant feminine forms — rendered in large-scale paste-ups from hand drawings — frequently encase historic, grungy-but-beautiful architectural features: doorways, window frames, rusted pipes. Patterns cut out of the paper render the flimsy paste-ups transparent, allowing the aged grain of the wall to emerge from beneath. These elements of urban space do more than provide a frame for the images; the site-specific images in turn frame the walls upon which they are pasted.

miso3

ghostpatrol2Fellow artist Ghostpatrol similarly carefully chooses the locations of his pieces, abandoning an earlier practice of applying repetitive stickers and posters indiscriminately across the city in favour of a more considered approach. He now constructs original drawings that fit a predetermined wall space, rendering the discovery of a piece also the re-discovery of a forgotten or concealed place: ‘I really like making subtle work that you create with odd hidden placement…so much of it is about the physical act of the viewer finding it.’4

Street art not only has the power to facilitate interaction between the city and its residents, but between people: Miso notes that, while walking the city on mornings after putting up a piece in order to photograph it before its disappearance, she often encounters others on missions of their own exploration and record-making. They stop and make conversation, sharing their personal maps of the city written in terms of street art, indicating where similar or other notable works might be found.5 Once awakened to the presence of street art, residents are constantly on the alert whilst walking city streets, newly receptive to its subtle eccentricities.

ghostpatrolBut street art can also evoke something more personal than the discovery of neglected urban architecture. The works of both Miso and Ghostpatrol draw on memory as a thematic element, introducing visual memory triggers onto the inscribed layers of the city. Ghostpatrol’s very pseudonym evokes the peopling of the streets with echoes of the past: characters appear during the night (pasted up by the artist under the cover of darkness) and colonise the streets, before eventually fading back into the walls from which they surfaced. His images — often delicately drawn children’s figures, anthropomorphic animals, cartoonish toys and creatures — contain a strong sense of narrative, as though frozen moments from urbanised folk tales. ‘I like offering a mix of basic narrative elements that hint at a story,’ Ghostpatrol has said of his work, ‘but also invite the viewer to create their own understanding. Some things end up being very personal, but also a bit hidden.’6 The works hold a sense of nostalgia, often directly inspired by childhood memories, outmoded cartoons, and old books.7

Reminiscence also plays a significant role in Miso’s work, in which the artist draws on her Ukrainian upbringing and Eastern European craft and folk traditions. In works that largely depict women, she evokes traditionally feminine, domestic crafts, like embroidery, sewing, and paper cutting — patterns cut into the paste-up images give a simplified effect of fabric and texture.8 The timeless physical action of an activity like sewing — which engages the hands in repetitive, instinctive motion — is deeply personal and yet universal: Miso has commented on the ability of such activity to elicit a ‘connection and the memories that come with it…Some people just need the right trigger to start looking at a more complicated picture.’9

The memory of the city itself also plays an essential role in the themes behind Miso’s delicate paste-ups, in which she depicts the people of the streets on the streets, drawing not only on family and friends for portraits, but also urban strangers: ‘I really like the idea of putting the people in the city back into its streets…to reflect the life and events and the stories, folklore almost, that happens within the city streets and to put it back into the walls directly.’10 The peopling of hidden or neglected urban spaces with human forms gives visual expression to their re-enlivenment.

Tschusse3

Miso’s interest in the evolving city is translated into her gallery work. In a 2008 exhibition entitled Tschusse! Miso condensed her home city (Karkhov, Ukraine) into a single room, ‘replicating street signs and buildings, clotheslines, portraits of strangers in the street, friends, family and folk stories.’11 The physical traces of the city are entwined with personal memory: reclaimed architectural objects — unhinged doorways, pieces of furniture, and laden washing lines — represent the city in its entirety; deeply personal items like handkerchiefs, clothing, candles and framed portraits evoke the individual’s experience within the city. The patina of age upon the textures of the objects — chipped, grainy wood and taut, peeling paint — emphasises the city as one composed of relics. This impression left upon physical places over time by emotional or real presences also becomes a metaphor for the impression left by physical places on the mind; the room is a compressed city as it is remembered and reconstructed by its creator, a powerful resonance of sense of place and place-bound roots.

lumieres3In another exhibition in 2011 at the No Vacancy Gallery in Melbourne, titled Les Lumières, Miso again portrayed the look, feel and experience of the urban setting by combining her street paste-up images with an array of urban objects — doorways, window frames, potted plants, milk crates, snapshots and knickknacks. Again, the physical traces of age and use are upon the surfaces; yet Les Lumières is less the construction of a city remembered than a neon-lit city of the present and future in which remembrance is part of the everyday. The contemporary city is envisioned as a lived space in which the past — in its material manifestations — forms the stage for our present actions: the city is a place in which we accumulate belongings, make gardens, make art, and make memories.

lumieres

In blurring the boundaries between presence and absence, permanency and transience, street art in Melbourne operates within a multi-layered relationship with memory formation and recollection. Pieces of street art and graffiti leave their trace upon the cityscape, the material signification of lived experiences and past urban encounters. Their imagery and their construction may work to evoke recollection and sense of place, or to call attention to existent traces of urban memory upon the landscape. Essentially, the structure of memory through which we view street art is of an evolving, living, collective web, the vestiges of which are indelibly inscribed upon the city’s surfaces and constantly being rewritten.

FOOTNOTES

Note on images: None of the above images are my own. Images 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8: artwork and photography by Miso. Images 4 and 5: artwork and photography by Ghostpatrol.

[1] Alison Young, ‘Art on the Threshold,’ in Street Studio: The Place of Street Art in Melbourne, edited by Alison Young, Ghostpatrol, and Miso. Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 14.

[2] Tracey Avery, ‘Values not Shared: The Street Art of Melbourne’s City Laneways,’ in Valuing Historic Environments, ed. Lisanne Gibson and John Pendlebury, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 147.

[3] ‘Laneway Commissions,’ City of Melbourne.

[4] Young, interview with Ghostpatrol, in Street Studio, 103.

[5] Young, interview with Miso, in Street Studio, 167.

[6] Young, interview with Ghostpatrol, in Street Studio, 103.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Young, interview with Miso, in Street Studio, 162.

[9] Ibid., 171.

[10] Ibid., 167.

[11] Miso, ‘Tschusse!,’ City of Reubens (weblog).

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