For anyone interested in the shifting, ephemeral face of city surfaces — as I am — the paste-up has particular resonance. Paste-ups are the epitome of ephemerality. Between pastings and as existing posters perish, paste-up sites come to resemble modern collages or a paper form of the archaeologist’s stratum; the suggestions of text and image become visible in part as the layers are torn away. To me, the stratum represents a temporally condensed equivalent of the overlays of paint and wallpaper in a period home which, if peeled back, reveal the evolving decorative tastes and economic standing of subsequent generations of the building’s occupants. Like layered advertising posters, the sanctioned cousin of the illegal paste-up, their content discloses the concerns of the urban inhabitants, concerns often as ephemeral as the posters themselves: commodities, events, political agendas, values, aesthetics.
Also like advertising, the images are infinitely reproducible: constructed in a studio and able to be rapidly wheat-pasted to any wall, paste-ups (like spray-painted stencils) enable the artist to bombard the city with a repeatable message or to transport a particular look to different urban centres. Yet the impact of different sites, different natural patterns, and of different public interactions and responses will imbue each image with a unique lifespan and patina of ageing.
The human process of layering the new upon the old and the natural processes of deterioration are a conscious interest for many street artists, who embrace the impermanency of their art form. In an exhibition in June 2011, titled L’inconnue de la rue (the unknown girl of the street), Rone created a series of works using torn billposters as canvases. The images on the posters themselves were created through a screen-printing process of layered paint colours. Multiple of these posters were pasted together, one to the other, as they would naturally be covered over in layers in the street. The artist then drew his fingers through the damp layers of thin paper, tearing and ripping into the surface, creating an instant, manufactured version of the weathering and disintegration that the posters would undergo while pasted on a public, outdoor wall.
L’inconnue de la rue was inspired by the tale of ‘L’inconnue de la Seine,’ an unidentified Parisian girl whose body was recovered from the Seine in the 1880s and whose haunting beauty and appearance of serenity in death led to her entrance into the realm of urban fable. Rone’s take on the story is of an unknown girl coping with the death of a loved one; the ‘illegibility of the destroyed billposters represents our inability to focus and make sense of life’ when faced with mourning.
The works, in my mind, raise questions about how and why we value street art. How do we respond to art that is inherently impermanent, when we are so steeped in the traditions of that monument to permanence, the museum? Can destruction be integral, imbuing street images with an element of interest that has nothing to do with their content or message? For me, of course, the answer is Yes — intellectually, the layered, the imperfect, the torn, the forgotten and destroyed are essential parts of life, often more telling about our world than the things we polish and protect. Aesthetically, the broken can be — simply — the beautiful.