Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Subversives

I bear two recommendations from current reading, one well outside my realm of experience and the other soundly within.

I finally managed to ‘obtain’ a copy of Wall and Piece by the obsessively anonymous (which is not the same as reclusive, in this particular case) British artist known far and wide as Banksy. His art is well-known and for further examples, you can start by visiting the artist’s web site, although whether it’s really his website or if he makes any contribution to it is anyone’s guess. The copyright page of his book reads “Copyright is for losers ©™,” if that gives you any insight into his attitude towards ownership.

I knew his work in London before I knew that he was becoming a big deal in the art world, primarily because my own reaction towards it was so instantaneous. In 2003, I lived on the South Bank of the Thames and it seemed like his stencils were everywhere. A rat here. A monkey wearing a placard bearing “Keep it real.”

The night I saw a blow-up doll tethered to a balloon bearing the McDonald’s logo, floating ominously over the statue of Eros in the midst of Piccadilly circus and couldn’t decide whether it was a joke or not.

My own favorite image is this little girl that lived on a wall near the exit to London Bridge Station. I took this picture before I knew anything about its origins. Its parallel in the book is accompanied by a single white page that reads, “When the time comes to leave, just walk away quietly and don’t make any fuss.”

The art is well-recorded in the book but I’m surprised to find how insightful, caustic, and tentatively hopeful his writing is.

Yes, he pretty much calls for pretty much open warfare on the plague of corporate advertising (“Any advert in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”). This, accompanied by the gagged and bound characters from a Disney film facing a head-cutter.

But more often, his messages are meant to impart a greater good on the world. (“I like to think I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom.”). This, accompanied by an image of a child hugging a bomb.

Graffiti has never been one of my creative impulses but I can see the attraction. Moreover, I like how Banky’s artwork has become part of London. Far from being an eyesore, it became, at least in my experience, the pleasant surprise of finding rats painted on walls and tunnels and other dead spaces all along my walk home from Waterloo to Borough High Street, each of them cutting locks, protesting vandalism, propping up brellys or plotting other minor crimes and misdemeanors.

“I’d been painting rats for three years before someone said, ‘That’s clever it’s an anagram of art,’ and I had to pretend I’d known that all along,” he writes. You have to give props to a man who’s in on a joke, even if it's on him.

It’s interesting to note that the use of stencils developed out of the need to cut down his painting time, to thus avoid getting pinched by the cops. “I got home and crawled into bed next to my girlfriend. I told her I’d had an epiphany that night and she told me to stop taking that drug cos it’s bad for your heart.”

Anyway, I’ve been bored stiff and creatively stifled for a couple of weeks now and this is the first thing to shake me out of my reverie so I wanted to share. In the interest of fairness, you can either buy a ticket to London and go see for yourself, or go buy a copy of Wall and Piece. Or steal it. I don’t care which. I’m not sure he does, either.
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On a similar note, I’m completely addicted to Brian Wood’s high-concept political satire-slash-war drama DMZ. Set in a near future way too close to our own, open warfare has broken out in the United States between the federal government and a set of rogue “free states.” The line of demarcation is the island of Manhattan, the titular DMZ where the action is set, and where the people that are left live in a no man’s land of social unrest punctuated by the occasional carpet bombing of primary sites like Times Square. The Empire State Building still stands, occupied by snipers who toss visitors off the observation deck. Central Park is held closely by a tightly wound group of environmentally-minded special ops soldiers who grow bamboo in the vestiges of the zoo. It’s a lot to take in, and Wood (Local and Demo are among his other works) and Vertigo regular Riccardo Burchielli make the most of it.

The trade paperbacks are cheap and totally worth every penny. They introduce DMZ’s nominal hero, a greenhorn photojournalist named Matty Roth who goes off the reservation to tell both sides of the conflict what’s really happening on the killing floor, and Zee Hernandez, a med student turned local guide who provides introductions between Matty and the various denizens of the DMZ.

If that doesn’t convince you, it’s worth picking up the latest issue that tells the story of “Decade Later,” a graffiti artist who spends years dodging the cops, live ordinance, and the other terrors of war just so he can finally see the Big Picture. It’s the first of a series of stand-alone stories planned by Wood to focus on particular citizens of his fractured little world, and you can get a free taste of it here.

For more, visit Wood’s professional website here. You can get the scoop on his other projects, download whole issues of DMZ and other books, and buy the good stuff from a variety of retailers.

Guess I'm done shaking the tree for now. We now return you to your lives of crap advertisements, junk food, and television.

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