To see or not to see the exhibition CAPITALE(S), 60 years of urban art in Paris?29 October 2022
I decided to ask myself the question directly and get to the heart of the matter! Because between you and me; a city that can punish graffiti artists with fines of up to 30,000 euros and even invites them to report them, is not necessarily the best place to hold an exhibition highlighting and glorifying these “vandals” of the streets that are the graffiti artists and urban artists! Unless… Unless there is some political recuperation! There’s something ambivalent, anachronistic, even schizophrenic about all this, isn’t it? To be honest, I hadn’t planned to go there, or even to write an article on the subject; but here I am, at the turn of a press article, seeing that the curators of the exhibition are : Marko93 , a talented graffiti artist from the north of Paris, internationally recognized – Elise Herszkowicz, who had done a magnificent job of curation during the ephemeral exhibition L’Essentiel Paris – Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre, a keen collector of urban art, founder of ART 42 and co-founder of Fluctuart and Magda Danysz, an international gallery owner specializing in contemporary art, who represents an increasing number of urban talents. A great team! What’s more, the exhibition is free, which corresponds to my editorial line, and I say to myself that only idiots are not changing their minds. There is still this strange ambivalence that bothers me a bit…
First steps in 60 years of urban art in the heart of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris
Forgetting my considerations, I enter this retrospective, which echoes my passion, with a fairly dense crowd. I wonder about the path that this extraordinary exhibition will offer, which is in a way an official recognition of a free & wild artistic movement that never stops growing and evolving!
After climbing a few steps, it is with undisguised pleasure that I find the pioneers of urban art! Jacques Villeglé‘s socio-political writing is a magnificent introduction to the work of Gérard Zlotykamien, Blek le Rat, Miss Tic, Jérôme Mesnager, Jef Aérosol, etc. A nice preamble accompanied by a work in situ by Zloty: what a gift!
The course of this incredible exhibition will therefore be chronological! How could it have been otherwise? To understand the explosive arrival of graffiti in France, the curators of the exhibition went looking for hundreds of archives. The birth of the first “crews” in 1983, the block parties mixing DJs, dancers and graffiti artists in the wastelands of northern Paris. The prolific exchange between New York graffiti artists and those from the Ile de France; an exchange that will lead many artists to desert the fences to take over the trucks of La Chapelle market or the Parisian subway. The fantastic and scandalous devastation of the Louvre metro station on May 1st 1991…
This chronology of illegal graffiti is striking; we perceive the movement evolving, growing. We discover the adoption of new techniques and increasingly structured letters. The exhibition shows sketchbooks, coloured metro signs and even a police report detailing the lettering of “vandal” Cokney on a Paris metro carriage.
It’s all there! Urban legends come to life in front of of our eyes. No fantasy, just an open door to what has been and what is still. Some of the graffiti artists in the spotlight, such as Psychoze Nolimit, continue to work tirelessly in the Parisian catacombs, on the streets of Paris and on the walls of the exhibition, to our great delight!
After a good hour spent studying, scrutinising and admiring these archive pieces, I decide to get off the footbridge to access the large rooms below. The scenography is more than polished and the staircase leading us to the next part of the discovery is, as it should be, graffitied to perfection! I smile as I discover the signature of Dize who is part of a crew of anthology alongside JonOne, Psy, Joey Starr, Cope2, Faust,…: the 156Allstarz!
From graffiti to conceptual, figurative, narrative art,…
When you enter the exhibition rooms, you feel that the narrative changes gear. We move from the purest “old style” graffiti to new forms of expression. Some urban artists evolve their style towards a more abstract world, while others focus on an infinitely varied concept. Urban art in Paris is booming and offers the public new mediums. Mosaics, collages, brush paintings, muralism, are added to the classic aerosol and stickers already well used.
The presentation of the works is more airy and small alcoves (and small rooms) make it possible to present urban art initiatives in a less explosive atmosphere. We note the presence of l’hôpital éphémère (An artist’s residence in a disused Parisian hospital), the project of the galerie itinerrance, Boulevard Paris 13, or a magnificent video presenting all the artists who signed the iconic Oberkampf wall in Paris.
The rooms are large and offer the necessary distance to admire the works produced in situ juxtaposed with the chosen works, on canvas, roller shutters, wooden panels or even stained glass. The great names of Parisian urban art are present, Kashink, Levalet, L’Atlas, André, Seth GlobePainter, Kraken, Invader,…
In the first two pieces, the graffiti signature is always present and the ingenious “GraffBox” invented by Cristobal Diaz; a light box allowing the graffiti artist’s gesture to be captured is by far my favourite. It allows the public to discover in video format the precision of the gesture and the level of technicality necessary to achieve his blaze.
Certainly, some artists are missing! But given the magnitude of the task, it is highly probable that the exhibition curators had to make some difficult choices. The fact remains that the scenography is dynamic, varied and extremely rich in proposals.
When Street Art and Contemporary Art become one!
The exhibition ends in a climax! The last room is a striking contrast! On the one hand, ultra-stylised and colourful XXL graffiti (see cover of the article) and on the other, a juxtaposition of works that anchor urban art in contemporary art. The editorial line of the exhibition curators led us from the graffiti artists’ desire to exist to a dense, almost museum-like composition. In the foreground we find a work by Madame, in the background the artist Philippe Baudelocque, all intertwined with the light threads of the contemporary kinetic artist Sébastien Preschoux.
These 60 years of urban art in Paris are ending on an undeniably contemporary note. But at the end of the journey I realise that I wouldn’t have written quite the same story. For there is a feeling of too much perfection, too much institutionalisation in the air. The unexpected at the corner has given way to the structured and the neat. The instinctive and rapid gesture of the street artist becomes smooth. Despite a qualitative scenography and an ultra-vibrant presentation, I don’t know why, but I have the unpleasant feeling that the freshness of urban art has been boxed in.
What about protest urban art in Paris?
After the exhibition, I walk in the sun along the quays of the Seine and I think about the editorial line, the choice of artists… Since 1990, when I officially arrived in Paris to study, I have worn out my soles in all the wastelands, squats, urban art spots… I then think, with a twinge of sadness, of the artists who were not selected by the curators. The further I go, the more I realise that many of these artists are protesters. If, on the one hand, Parisian urban art has become institutionalized, the fact remains that talented artists continue to put their meaningful works on the walls of Paris.
My steps systematically take me to districts that are historically linked to the history of graffiti; La Chapelle, Stalingrad,… In these districts for more than 10 years, urban artists have been putting up works that challenge, works that sometimes shock and send a chill down the spine, works that let a voice of the people be heard.
There is like a rumbling that is growing inside me. The Hôtel de Ville, temple of the Republic in a country where Freedom of Expression is a fundamental right, has not left its place to the words of the people! It is very likely that this is a simple oversight, that the curators, carried away by a strong editorial line, have moved away from the street and towards the institutions. All choices being subjective, I cannot criticize theirs, but simply note that I do not have, with my sensibility, quite the same reading of Parisian urban art over the last 32 years in the capital.
I would have loved to have discovered at the end of this exhibition an open door to the protest art of today and yesterday. To see works by PBoy, the controversial Black Lines Community Collective or the irreverent Goldofuck by Pimax. Yes, I would have loved to see in conclusion what urban art really brings to our society that is not necessarily only beautiful!
To see or not to see the exhibition CAPITALE(S), 60 years of urban art in Paris?
The question doesn’t even arise, how can you imagine that I would advise you not to go and see an exhibition that required a pharaonic amount of research? Even if some artists are missing, even if I don’t have quite the same reading of Parisian urban art. This exhibition is a recognition for all these shadow artists who have been working for years, against all odds, in the streets of Paris. This exhibition is the recognition of the greatest artistic movement of the 21st century. No, Paris is not, in my opinion, the world capital of urban art, but it has the honesty to recognize the artistic side of this often illegal practice. By the way, it would be good if the organisation translated the cartels into English 😉 Because it seems to me that urban art is international, right?
My only advice is to treat yourself, get a free ticket on the City of Paris website and enjoy two hours! Then take a breath and head to Spot 13 which will offer you a good dose of Parisian urban art in the open air with all the creative explosion it has to offer!
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I’m putting on a new pair of trainers and I promise my next street art adventure will be outdoors!
See you soon