What is graffiti? Is it art or vandalism? Can it be shown in art galleries and sold to collectors or is its place on streets and public squares? Olga Sliusarenko attended the recent show Wall Elements in Manege Exhibition Hall in St. Petersburg and offers her opinion.

Photo by Mike Vilchuk

Wall Elements is a large-scale exhibition project by Alex Partola featuring more than 100 works of 70 graffiti and street artists from 17 Russian cities, from Kaliningrad to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. It is a part of a wide research project focused on Partola’s study of the urban environment and street culture launched in 2013. Partola organized the first exhibition of Russian street art in RuArts Gallery (Moscow) for which he chose the artists who could transfer their works from walls to canvases. It was the first time when Russian street art entered the exhibition space.

Wall Elements is the next step of Partola’s research which continues challenging the preconceptions of Russian street art. Showing both emerging and well-known artists, authors of the largest murals in the world, as well as participants of the international biennales of street art, major festivals and exhibitions, Partola disproves the opinion that there is no street art in Russia. Moreover, the exhibition has an important educational objective. According to Stas Bags, one of the exhibiting artists, the street art in Saint Petersburg is more often perceived as a form of vandalism, rather than art. Wall Elements emphasizes its artistic value and opens up new opportunities for the artists to communicate with the viewers.

There were no set topics or limitations for artists in techniques or forms of expression. Participants experimented with a vast range of materials, including airbrush, oil, watercolor paints, plywood, old furniture, scotch tape, light boxes, and rhinestones, to create the unconventional works. Some artists commented on important social issues, while others adopted a more playful approaches toying with their names and tags. None of them, however, considers their creative work as the medium of political protest. Anna Yalova, producer of Wall Elements, admitted that Russian street art avoids political commentary and prioritizes its aesthetic qualities.

Wall Elements explores various styles of street art and situates it within the wider development of contemporary art. One of the strong threads presented at the show is the attempts of the artists to go beyond the flat space of walls and to produce 3-dimensional works. Some of them chose to create characters in order to reach wider audience, address social issues and express their ideas. For example, Sasha RTS made surrealistic plastic monsters with hands and legs swapped as a symbol of growing stereotypes and lies in the society.

Photo by Mike Vilchuk

Another artist, Dmitri Aske, created a sculpture “Illusions” in which he depicted a giant man who breaks the brick wall. On the one hand, according to the artist, it symbolizes an ordinary man facing his inner limits and stereotypes embedded in the society. On the other hand, it is a reflection of the artist himself standing for the possibility of self-expression in the city.

Another theme visible in the works of several artists is the references to the Biblical topics. Such an unexpected combination of very traditional plot and contemporary media once again demonstrates the ability of street art to engage with very diverse range of issues. One of the most striking examples is the installation “Wall Elements of Mary Magdalene” created by Stfnv. His interest in the Biblical images goes back to 2015 when the artist worked on the mural in the  Moscow night club Arma17 for Outline, the festival of electronic music. Stfnv toyed with the parallels the temple of religion and temple of music and created the face of Mary Magdalene on the front of Karacharov mechanical factory. Already in that project he started his investigation of how graffiti can be transformed into 3-dimensional work.

Photo by Stfnv

For Wall Elements he continued the exploration of the same theme and made the depiction of the eyes of Mary Magdalene made of 10 layers of plywood. If you stay in front of it, you see just a chaos of elements. The image of eyes could be seen only from the distance of at least 20 meters. The effect of stratifying applied by Stfnv symbolizes the fragments of the wall.

Photo by Stfnv

Another case is Alexey Shidlovsky’s kinetic sculpture “Seraph”. Created from the light-reflecting materials, such as plastic, gold, chrome and galvanized iron, and placed above the mirror aimed to symbolize a lake, the sculpture is in the constant motion. There is no engine, but all the elements of the works are mobilized by the airflow depicting the angel, who spreads the light and can burn everything to ashes. As the artist recalls. his interest in this theme started when he saw Alexander Ivanov’s depiction of two six-winged seraphs in the Tretyakov gallery. Since then he experimented with various representations of Seraph and was encouraged by Partola to bring his work to Wall Elements adopting the medium of the kinetic sculpture.

Photo by Alexey Shidlovsky

These artists are not the only ones who combine the innovation and reinterpretation. For example, Zoom refers to the classical masterpiece giving it the new meaning in the contemporary context. His work “Disaster of Our Days” uses the elements of the famous “The Last Day of Pompeii” by Karl Brullov. The depiction of the people trying to find the refuge from the erupting volcano was transferredto the transformer vaults, which looked almost like the huge iPhone screens. However, the danger, from which the characters of the works are hiding is not the nature catastrophe, but the signs of a dying battery and lost mobile reception. The work, thus, becomes Zoom’s witty critique on our dependence on technology and digital communication while the real interaction is lost.

Photo by Mike Vilchuk

Stas Dobry in his installation “Friendship is For Sale/Not For Sale” asks what seems to be the central issue of many of the works. Alex Partola, giving his interpretation of this work, transfers the question to the field of art. Should the works of contemporary art be sold? Or should they stay a part of streets determining the visual culture of cities? The viewers could choose the answer themselves just turning the tablet with antonymous statements. Perhaps, the artists made their choice: having started to produce their works on the streets drawing graffiti on the walls they broaden their horizons and experimented with all the forms of contemporary art combining both commercial and non-commercial elements. Like Dmitri Aske’s giant man they break the flat space of the walls and stand for the freedom of self-expression.

Photo by Mike Vilchuk

The exhibition maintained the element of a lively on-going process which is characteristic of street art and featured a number of public events, such as the live graffiti jam during which 15 artists painted the walls at the public square near Manege. The artists also created two “Smoke Walls”on the course of the live fire show performance, so that the visitors could join the street art movement and write or paint any personal sign, statement or graffiti on them.

Photo by Mike Vilchuk

The exhibition is definitely worth attention for the brilliant selection of the works. Alex Partola compared his challenge of finding the best examples of street art to finding the needle in a haystack. But he undoubtedly succeeded, as the exhibition reflected all the diversity of the street art practices promoting the new ideas and searching for new art techniques. Partola continues his research to discover emerging talents who have not come into the spotlight yet.  However, as Anna Yalova admits, the exhibition is also a a puzzle raising the new questions as much as giving the answers. Some of them might become the center of the attention of the new Partola’s exhibition held in RuArts Gallery in Moscow from September 18 to October 20 and the supporting publication “Wall Elements 2” which is presented in the course of the exhibition.