Over the New Year break, I read Anne Michaels’ remarkable novel, The Winter Vault. Michaels is a poet turned novelist and it shows in her lyrical prose. The Winter Vault is essentially a love story about engineer Avery and his horticulturalist wife Jean. But as the action moves from Egypt to Canada, Scotland to Poland, Michaels weaves meditations on history and culture into the narrative with a dazzling boldness. I kept wanting to mark up paragraphs in pencil, read passages out loud, reflect on how I felt about the issues raised by the characters in the story.
The following paragraph is one example:
Avery spoke of the despair of space that the built world had created; waste space too narrow for anything but litter; dark walkways from carparks to the street; the endless, dead space of underground garages; the corridors between skyscrapers; the space surrounding industrial rubbish bins and ventilator shafts . . . the space we have imprisoned between what we have built, like seeds of futility, small pockets on the earth where no one is meant to be alive, a pause, an emptiness . . .
‘And that’s why love street art,’ I said to myself as I marked up this passage in the novel.
It was a moment of revelation. I love street art — and I include graffiti in my definition — because it transforms ‘waste space’ into something of value, breathing life into those small pockets where no one is meant to be alive, filling that emptiness with something to ponder, admire, take umbrage at, get excited about.
The authorities celebrate my hometown, Melbourne, as ‘one of the world’s great street art capitals for its unique expressions of art on approved outdoor locations’, though they hasten to distinguish between stencils, paste-ups and murals as legal street art, and illegal graffiti and tagging.
But I don’t mind the mindless graffiti — everybody’s got to start somewhere — and many tags are astonishing, both aesthetically and logistically.
Brunswick where I live in Melbourne’s inner north is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to street art. My theory is that the amount of creative energy in this suburb simply cannot be contained and spills out on to the streets and into public spaces in an ever-changing landscape of artwork.
Local favourites include large, stunning works by aerosol artists Adnate and the AWOL Crew, and Baby Guerilla‘s whimsical paste-ups that remind me of flying dreams. But I also love the little works by anonymous artists: the sculpted heads on telegraph poles; the origami cranes found floating from the railing outside the railway station one morning; the spinning wheels; the little green monster on a back gate; the quirky stencils that transform walls into palimpsests.
The pause created by these works is not the emptiness that causes Avery in The Winter’s Vault to despair, but a moment to savour. Take the above photo: you see the bins, but you notice the bird, and there’s something about its proximity to the bins that makes it all the more beautiful. It looks poised to fly from the side of a factory turned artists’ space, the sort of building likely to be razed for apartments before too long.
That’s the other precious thing about street art: its transience. Birds like this face constant threat of extinction.
Below is a slideshow of street art images (my first in a post), all taken within a couple of kilometres of where I live over the past couple of years. Some no longer exist, brought down with the walls of the buildings on which they were painted. Others are no longer visible, painted, pasted or stencilled over. As a photographer, I’m a rank amateur. For truly stunning images, I recommend Suzanne Phoenix‘s work, especially her Melbourne Street Art Diary 2014 (order here).