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On Street Art and The Works of Italian Artist BLU October 5, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Short Cuts, Street Art.
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A portion of the wall in Managua, Nicaragua

Words can’t fully express how much I appreciate Blu’s works. I have to shrill and make some childish noises as I look at them, and at times I utter string of incoherent phrases which I myself cannot believe came from my mouth. The mechanism of amazement, as always, innocently humiliates.

So I let my five-year-old niece watch Muto and I look at her as she watches it. She mutters “Angaleng!” countless times and in varying tones and loudness. Her eyes gleam as she exclaims her delight, never wanting to miss a frame by glancing at my direction. She watches first in silence, perhaps allowing the moving images to get into her senses, and after realizing the spark of creativity she’s seeing for the first time, she yells to me her own version of appreciation. After watching the film, she asks if she could see another one. I let her watch Combo and I look at how she reacts again. She is thrilled. This is our little bonding session before she goes to bed.

When she’s set to sleep I ask her what she thinks of the films I showed her. She seems to be pondering what to say but after a brief silence she tells me again, “Angaleng, Tito!” She must love the word. I insist for at least a five-word explanation, but I believe I am being too hard on her so I just let it go and bid her good night. Now I want to write something about Blu’s works, and to express it at least a notch higher than “Angaleng!” or “Gaaaaaarhhh” or “Anganda, Tito, isa pa.” I hope I can manage though, because even a bit of disservice is a shame.

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Prato, Italy

FRAGMENTS OF A MUSEUM IN THE CITY

There is not much information to find about Blu on the Internet, except that he is an Italian painter who recently became known in his street art. His graffiti works are marked by an incredible amount of talent and ambition, often breaking the literal and aesthetic boundaries of his canvas. Not only he makes the fullest use of the walls provided to him, he also makes them appear like fragments of a museum brought to the street for the locals to see. Aside from punctuating the value of street art in urban anthropology, Blu’s works also show that the limitations of art could also work at its advantage.

Exposure of works to the metropolis allows discussion on the subject of “consumption”, since the public has little choice not to see them. In the case of museums, one needs to pay, on his own volition, to view art works exhibited in galleries. Century-old questions like, Should art be free? or Does it matter if art is free? or Does it make an artist less of an artist when his works are out in the open? come up and become relevant.

Apparently, the importance of street art doesn’t stop at appreciating its aesthetics. It is also necessary to recognize its role in developing a community, particularly its members’ understanding and judgment of the arts, and the many ways it can challenge common beliefs and practices, as well as educate young and old minds alike, the same way more popular forms of visual arts are regarded.

But how about MMDA art, I ask, how does it make sense to you? Does it reflect our idea of art? Is it a collective concept that we agreed on or just a reflection of our political surroundings?

What makes street art extremely interesting for me is that a great number of people (it’s tempting to say most) look down on it. (Fair enough, some of them, particularly with the one I used above as an example, are based on good reasons.) A graffiti could be anything from the scribbles in the men’s room or the writings on the bleachers in school to the sprawl of histories and splash of emotions painted on the Berlin wall.

Some call it vandalism – – a crappy way to mess up the walls and leave them appallingly untidy – – and they respond to it like a crime committed to their society. I recall having seen a documentary in television about Filipino hobbyists who do street arts by commission. Since it is the head of the community who talked to them, by the time the work was finished, the residents were surprised when they saw it. The documentary eggs on the negative response, with some respondents going out of their way to call what the artists draw an act of visual terrorism. The commissioned street artists are into rap and hip-hop music, so perhaps that is where the prejudice hops from. Still, maybe even if they are not, the people wanted it to be erased.

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Barcelona, Spain

THE SPITTING IMAGE OF BLU IS HIS WORKS

One’s understanding of art is the spitting image of his intellectual and emotional ability to distinguish the good from the bad. And taste, which is more of an acquired property than an innate trait, is not something defended to be proven right. It stands on its own as a reflection of one’s mind, its breadth or its lack thereof, its predilections, and its lenience. I don’t think it’s necessary to argue with people who call a certain street art “terrorizing” but a contrary opinion is always welcome to hear, especially when it is well founded. It takes a consensus for a street art to be done, the community being a shared responsibility,  because the long-term effect of it goes beyond the “coolness” of seeing it everyday, or the repulsion one feels while looking at it. Balance and choice of location are important factors that the artist must also consider.

There is a particular painting Blu made in Barcelona that I liked, and since then I felt the need to take him seriously. It is a painting of a shark whose body is designed with paper bills. The use of bills makes it appear like the shark is moving, and its green color clearly points out his message. The video that records Blu painting the art is interesting for its conversations, especially the part when the kid mentions, “It shouldn’t be on a wall, it would be better on a billboard. Maybe I’d like it better if it were an ad.”

I find it striking for the insight, and the honesty and the keenness that the kid shows as he reacts with the art being done in front of him. Then an older man, perhaps his father, interrupts, “Look at Goya, Picasso, and Velasquez, all those abstract paintings that make no sense, and still people pay fortune for them.” And so I thought, would it hurt if we talk about something like that without people accusing us of highbrowism? I really believe that if we try to cultivate art appreciation at a young age, the way we look at ourselves and our country’s history would be different.

A short clip called Grottaglie shows Blu on a rooftop, painting a side of an apartment with red and white hues. The design brings to mind a sort of a mythic figure with a covering filled with holes. It records a day-to-night work, and the final shot reveals a view of the painting from afar, situating its location with the neighboring community.

Blu has done numerous works in Italy – – in Grottaglie, Modena, Prato, and Milan – – but he also travels his art with him. He has done paintings in Linares, London, Wroclaw, Eindhoven, Berlin, and a lot more cities, and has made collaborations with other artists as well. Pictures of these works can be viewed in his lovely website.

But talent, even if you are gifted enough to draw with your eyes closed, could not be everything. Blu is also very passionate and devoted to explore the possibilities of street painting. He makes use of wall corners and surfaces, from apartment windows and parking walls to granite doors and metal driveway entrance, to create a sense of movement in his outlines and a stunningly bizarre character in his design. From simple strokes and sketches to elaborate mix of colors and playful textures, he draws like the wall is an infinite universe.

Moreover, his works break the monotony of the city. He makes passing in sidewalks something to look forward to, something which cities in Metro Manila lack: the pleasure in everyday travel, from simple walks to public transportation. I imagine passing by these places just to look at them, to marvel at his figures, to dream of them when I go home, and to come back again the next day to look again.

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Muto: An Ambiguous Animation Painted On Public Walls
Animation and Editing by Blu
Assistant: Sibe
Music by Andra Martignoni

But he doesn’t stop at painting. He also creates animation pieces of his projects. His early sketches, from a transforming bulldozer to an exhaust fan that drives a man away, are remarkable in their deadpan humor. Most are only ten seconds long, and the humor is criminally strange. A more recent work called Morphing, which runs for less than a minute, shows a side of a warehouse painted with the signs and symbols of the Euro, the Dollar, the Swastika, and the Hammer and Sickle. He combines these things together to appear as if they are morphing, accompanied by a looping sound of a factory hiss. I find it peculiarly interesting when I notice that at the back of the warehouse is a construction site.

But it is upon seeing Muto when my admiration turns into fanaticism. Like his sketches, Blu morphs into an artist we haven’t seen before, and here he presents a fascinating succession of shapeshifting characters on his favorite world of walls. Painted in Buenos Aires and Baden in Argentina, Muto is memorable in its phantasm, primarily the fusion of visuals and music that creates a stunning fare of entertainment. From headless bodies and huge legs to hands that come out of nowhere and their reproduction of smaller and stranger figures, I am completely awed by the richness of its creativity and imagination. The floor and ceiling are also used, to my surprise and delight. The passing cars along the road can be seen and heard, evoking their participation in the film.

There are two important transitions that Blu is able to maximize in Muto. First, the transition among the figures. Since Muto basically depicts the transformation of one figure to another, the consistency of execution is crucial. It appears to me that while the execution is almost seamless, what holds the piece together is the element of surprise that Blu injects into the transformations, as well as the realization upon watching the painstaking effort it took him to deliver it. Watching the figures taking form unpredictably fast, birthing and devouring, shifting and dissolving, is a visual treat.

Second, the transition among the walls. From left to right and top to bottom, from brick wall to concrete wall, from wall to floor to a small corner to another wall and to the ceiling down to a wall, and from long shots to extreme close-ups, Blu makes a point of emphasizing movement. The wall not only breathes the character: it is the character. The little details you notice in its jumpy continuity only add to its playfulness. Blu is telling a story – – not just feelings, as far as the medium and style are concerned – – and through his transitions he is able to narrate a really tight one.

The images also stick to your mind: the walking pairs of hands and feet in the beginning, the running teeth, the perky diamond, the falling heads, the creepy bugs. But credit also goes to Andrea Martignoni for the ambiance. Her music renders these images elegantly, fittingly, and indescribably surreal without going overboard. The immediacy of the images goes hand in hand with the colorful texture of the music, their details evoking subtle hints on historic events. “Muto” in Italian means “mute,” but apparently Blu wants to make use of contradiction.

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Combo: A Collaborative Animation by Blu and David Ellis
Music by Roberto Lange
Made at Fame Festival 2009

While fractals dominate the imagery of Muto, Combo makes particular emphasis on structural space. The trademark figures are still there but Blu sets aside the design to pronounce the confinement. He goes around it, paints the ground, paints wall figures, connects them, makes coltish skits, and rolls with the fun of putting them all together. Whereas before, we have the idea that the wall belongs to the “real world” and the figures painted on it to the “unreal world”, Combo breaks that thought. Everything is on the same plane. Everything is on a parallel universe, effortlessly shown.

The concern on movement moves up, now providing a tangible coexistence of the realistic elements and the “non-realistic.” But the term “non-realistic” is not only insufficient but also not completely true. The paint, the bricks, the scraps of wood – – these are all real. But Blu and David Ellis use them as if they are not. The movement created out of them makes them appear unrealistic. The green laser, the dripping paint, the enormous feet, the wandering hand, they all seem to walk out of  the pages of Dave McKean’s illustrations or Svankmajer’s pad of sketches. To top it off, you get to watch the film twice. (By then, the question mark escapes out of our heads. What gives?)

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Modena, Italy

APRES-GARDE

The term “avant-garde” is used when describing works that break new ground in arts and culture. Blu’s works are innovative, cutting-edge, and progressive, so is it avant-garde? Absolutely. But with the misuse and overuse of the term in both mainstream and marginal communities I opted not to bring the word up to avoid hanging on the stereotype.

Creativity breaks borders. And perhaps that’s why expounding on Blu’s avant-gardism is needless, if not unimportant. What I find interesting are observations, the response towards his works, the interpretations made by people out of them, and the relevance of these images to their lives. The immediate reaction of my five-year-old niece is not different from the response of my fifty-something mom when I also showed the films to her. They both express their admiration, but only up to a certain extent. They think they are beautifully made and entertaining, but they can’t say why. (Or maybe they do know, they just don’t want to tell me.)

But really, is there more to it than that? Or should there be more to it than that? I don’t mind gibbering when I see a work as amazing as Muto. In fact, I do it most of the time, and I have always believed that the most beautiful films and the most thought-provoking ones (those that move you think to the point that you can’t think anymore) are the hardest to write about. Because really, when you write about it, you are bound to fail. The best review of Blu’s works is the smile you see from someone else’s face while watching them, which you wish you can put into words but you can’t, which you wish you can describe or share with other people but you just can’t. Ah, such pity.

Never mind. Blu needs more paint than reviews. To echo a comment, “For it takes strong shoulder muscles to push that much paint, long health to you, Blu!” And more paintings and animations to come.

* Blu’s website
** Blu’s Youtube site where you can watch his films

Comments»

1. nabis - October 29, 2009

Bologna is the main city in Italy to find blu’s work and signs


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