Urban Art, Street Art, Graffiti-– there are many names to call it– but regardless of which term you choose, while Urban Art has played a major role in Contemporary Art, very few people really don’t know too much about it. Enter THE ART UNION, established over a year ago and administrated by Phillipp Barth and Diana Bach (already respectively known for their work at Berlin Urban Art spaces BC Gallery and Urban Spree and both curators known for working with Urban Artists in Berlin); the aim of the organization is to bring better Urban Art Awareness to the public, creating great Art Shows that reflect on URban Art and bring such Urban Artists into a different light.
For Gallery Weekend two weeks ago, they created a masterpiece show on the subject called WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY? 2 at Berlin’s historic Alte Münze, opting to show artworks from over 80 Urban Artists created in their studios instead of outside, as would be expected. The result was quite interesting– shedding light on the unexpected working challenges and aims these artists have. My daughter Carly Hariton and I visited the show and then got to speak with Phillipp Barth, Diana Bach, and one of the participating artists (the quite gifted) Johannes Mundiger about the project….
How did the Art Union start? Why did it start?
Phillipp: It’s something that developed, which we didn’t plan. It kind of emerged from our everyday lives. We’ve been involved now for some time both professionally and privately in the art scene. We felt this kind of unspoken demand, to bring the (Urban Art) community together and bundle it. One of the initial reasons was to create opportunities, which contribute precisely to this. We started accordingly with the first edition of WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY last year.
Diana: Some of the participating artists told us that they only first personally met there. Although they live in the same city, they only knew of each other’s names and work from the Internet. It’s fun to create formats that, for example, open up opportunities for collaborations and other forms of networking. Compared to other European cities, the Urban Art in Berlin isn’t really so well represented or networked; so, we sort of made it our task. In addition, there is a need for funding at many levels, so we try to do this with other formats as good as possible.
Johannes: I make up about 50% of the target group to which The Art Union is directed. Artists living in Berlin, emerging, with an Urban Art Background. I know half of the members for some time and I know—feel– that this club has a desire to really do something: the fact that monetary interests are not at the forefront, but rather the motivation to contribute and to shape. And right now, with the WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY exhibitions—it shows an overview about the current Berlin scene. In addition, The Art Union supported me greatly with the invitation to participate in Russia.
Last August, the Art Union was invited to the Moscow Biennale to co-curate the main project of the second atmosphere—what was that like, going there and working on the artwork locally in Moscow? Also, what was the resonance to urban art and to the work you did?
Phillipp: It was a great experience to work under such good conditions for 20 days with Berlin-based artists Johannes Mundinger, Pablo Benzo and Mario Mankey in the city of Moscow. We got a painting studio, a wood workshop, a sculpture workshop, and all required materials for creating paintings on canvas and glass, as well as wood and concrete sculptures– every artist had also the opportunity to design the entire booth where they presented the results of the temporary residency work.
Showing in one of the biggest exhibition venues of Moscow only a few meters from the Red Square was a great pleasure for us. We’d never exhibited in such an impressive venue. The opening reception was busy, but for us it felt kind of weird, getting such a big stage for artworks by artists with a background in graffiti because of the contrast between the inside and the outside of the venue. The city center is so clean and kind of sterile– with the periphery of the venue, and in the city center of Moscow in general– you find hardly any graffiti.
Johannes, what’s it like being in an Urban Art show with three artists vs. 80 artists in WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY? Also, it looks like you were able to create a lot—also 3-dimensional works—in Moscow– what was your experience like?
Johannes: In general, I really like to work on site to get a feeling for a certain place or space. Also, my work is often developing after it’s being created. I have a rough idea, a rough concept, being expressed through the process.
Exhibition, 80 versus 3 participants…WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY 2, I see more like an overview exhibition. As a small ‘lexicon’ or listing of the Berlin artists with an Urban Art Background. Here, each participant was also ‘limited’ to work within a certain size and format. That’s why I showed a relatively small work from the studio–not an installation related to the room, as I would have for a more concentrated exhibition. In Moscow, it was different, since in Moscow every artist got about 25sqm plus material and the possibilities to create something. So I could realize a space-consuming work, which also represented the exhibition space.
In general, I always find it exciting, whenever many artists meet– getting to know different approaches and topics, and the personalities behind the work. (Smiles) And, also being able to present my work before colleagues.
You unanimously keep calling this genre of art ‘Urban Art’; is there a difference between ‘Urban Art’ and ‘Street Art’, and do you think that the title ‘Street Art’ has a negative connotation?
Diana: For us, the concept of ‘Urban Art’ is merely an aiding concept, or a collective term that doesn’t exclude any of the subgenres (Graffiti, Street Art– generally all forms of interventions), which is accepted by the artists, of whom we know. It’s clear to us, that the term is very vague– in our view, art criticism is still lagging behind. (Smiles)
Phillipp: We know of graffiti writers, who under no condition want to be called ‘Street Artists’. However, with literature this is often the case– probably for more historical reasons. On the one hand, because the majority of graffiti is defined by the style of writing; on the other hand, because– unlike Street Art– graffiti still implies this halo of subversity and of the uncommercial. The term Street Art (and the accompanying aesthetics) has often been instrumentalized by commercial exploiters into a marketing tool—it’s not surprising that many artists cannot identify with it.
Johannes: To me ‘Street Art’ has become a term for a certain kind of aesthetics– being used by advertising agencies or turning out when people try their first stencils– not for what happens actually in the streets. I think that’s why I don’t like it that much; but also I wouldn’t consider myself a Street Artist.
From its origin, ‘Street Art’ has – at least in my mind – something illegal, interventional, etc… What I’m doing is more like painting huge ‘canvases’ in public spaces. Also what you saw at the exhibition at the Alte Münze is not Street Art / Urban Art / Public Art, in most cases–in almost none of the cases. It shows more about what artists who also work in public spaces are working on in their studios. (Illicit work in public space is per se a political act, which is to take ownership of the public space, to help shape it.)
For me, ‘illegal-legal’ is not really an issue– it’s more about the work itself. But I also work very seldom-unasked in public spaces. The main part of my work is in Murals (which I’m either invited to do or are conceived on deserted grounds, where no one worries about them) and (preferably space-oriented) Painting. That’s why I also choose the subject matter according to the need and not according to the impression it leaves behind from its utilization.
Why do you think it’s important to show this Urban Art in an indoor, ‘gallery’ context?
Diana: At this point, I think I need to clarify the issue: what we showed in this exhibition is contemporary art by artists who have an urban art background; Urban Art takes place in public space and the works, which were shown in WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY were created consciously in the studio with the understanding that they’d be seen indoors and in a gallery-like context. The Urban Art background of the protagonists is an important staple of all the works, because of how it’s influenced artistic achievement on many levels– directly or indirectly– be it mindfulness, technique, dynamics, material, etc. On the other hand, there’s also the effect that the creative process in the studio has, which inspires and influences work in the public sphere.
The work shown in the exhibition– on canvases, glass, paper, wood and metal plates, and the many other materials also used allow the artist a different approach to the work than the surfaces offered in the public sphere. The artists have, for example, more time for production, and can thus be finer, and more elaborate, and manifold this wider range of materials than from which they normally are working. Most urban artists are involved in the direct environment in which their work in public spaces is created– this isn’t absolutely necessary for studios works.
Work in public spaces depends on being quickly recognizable, which is why they are often more so bold and eye-catching. In the gallery context, the viewers have more time and can look at the works more intensively, and therefore can often also go deeper with it– many exhibitors aren’t aware of this. At the WHAT THE WEEKEND IS GALLERY shows; however, you get an intuitive feeling for it. For us, it’s interesting to offer a platform for the public to reflect on these coherencies and for artists to have ways of extending their forms of expression.
It really was interesting to see all of these different artistic positions side-by-side in the space– the fact that you had such a massive amount of artwork and were still able to curate this really harmonious show is really remarkable. It’s like, when something is so harmonious; people seem to glaze over how challenging this must have been for you.
The hanging of the works seemed really random at first, but taking a closer look, it really wasn’t so random. For instance, there seemed to be undertones of color harmony popping up again and again. How were you able to navigate through the curation of over 80 art works?
Phillipp: Before we started hanging the works, we visualized all the works in the rooms digitally, and we created a hanging plan beforehand– this was a lengthy process over several hours. While we were hanging the works, we had to correct a bit– since the effect of the physical work in space feels different than in the digital template. The red thread there was that the works stand out clearly from their neighboring works– e.g. figurative versus abstract, different materiality, etc., so that one is compelled, as a viewer, to adjust (visually) to something else and to interrupt the flow of the visual habit.
Diana: In our opinion, this is the best way to work out the individuality of the respective artistic position. What you would maybe call ‘subliminal harmonic overall effect’ reflects in the end our aesthetic experience. This is intuitive and is therefore difficult to explain with words.
With this prerequisite of showing only two-dimensional artworks one immediately sort of expected drawing and painting, but this show had so much more—from video projections, to mixed media reliefs, to even the magnetic board piece….
Instead of ‘two-dimensional’, we’d prefer to speak about ‘Suspended works – works that can be hung on the wall’, because as you say, the word ‘two-dimensional’ often doesn’t really fit them. That we had to make this restriction depended mainly on practical reasons. On the one hand, three-dimensional works require more space for presentation than even the 600 m2 exhibition area, which we had available allows. On the other hand, the production of three-dimensional works is often more costly than that of two-dimensional ones. As a non-profit organization, we are not in a position to subsidize production– that would maybe have excluded some of the artists who live in precarious circumstances. We wanted to give equal conditions for all the artists.
We do not believe that the default of showing ‘hangable work’ created additional challenges for the artists. (Smiles)
The press announcement talks about somehow connecting this Urban Art scene– with its young, emerging artists– to the larger art market of, for instance, gallery weekend. This sentiment is good and fine- but what else can the visitor take away about ‘Urban Protagonists’ from this show?
Phillipp: I think the most surprising moment for the audience was the variety of expressions. As you already noticed, there were many surprises, because there weren’t only paintings and drawings to be seen– as Diana already mentioned before, is the artist’s approach to creating artwork in the studio—something totally different than what one would see in the street; and you also totally see it in the artworks.
Diana: The diversity of positions is also an important aspect, because it reflects on the characteristic features of the Urban Art protagonists in Berlin, which is characterized by cultural diversity as well as by their generational experience. With few exceptions, the artists who exhibited were born after 1980, and come from the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada, Morocco, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Spain, Syria, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America.
Female positions represent a vital part of the exhibition. Female positions are featured in this exhibition because they make up part of the scene. In this exhibition, ten female artists are represented– which is roughly the ratio of female positions in Urban Art.
Show closed 30. April 2017.
For more information on THE ART UNION , please visit their website: www.the-art-union.de
What the Weekend is Gallery 2 – Group Show
(22 – 30/04/2017)
Alte Münze / Molkenmarkt 2 / 10179 Berlin
Images courtesy of The ART UNION, all rights reserved.