Muralismo Morte is the second book by Jens Besser I’ve reviewed. In this book the content is made up of photographs interrupted by short pieces of writing that link them together. Rather than examining the more theoretical side of muralism they discuss some history, first-hand experiences, or the ideas behind the work of the artists. The photographs show different styles and techniques, covering a broad range of surfaces and situations, which are brought together under the term of ‘new muralism’. The introduction to the book describes the evolution of a new generation of muralists whose abstract work departed from the writing and letterforms of graffiti to focus on the characters that were no longer “the icing on the cake of a burner.” This is the new muralism that is represented here. To avoid producing yet another anthology of street-art the author has attempted to show lesser known painters with the main focus on illegal productions.
Having said that there are some more conventional street-art style murals featured. The first chapter of the book deals with the bulk of the permission walls. There’s a brief description of how these walls come about, what problems they may throw up, and then a few pages each given to showing the work of a dozen or so artists. Besser describes the spontaneity of these pieces that aren’t so much planned on paper but built up on the wall. Many are large productions that cover entire walls including a funky work by Ema Jones that was painted on the façade of a house by leaning out of the windows. Meanwhile a later chapter focuses on collaborative murals. This part contains the most ambitious works where muralists have joined together to merge their talents and create mega works of art. One example shown is the Urban Script Europe wall in which twenty people worked together over a week, using different styles and techniques, to create an impressive mural on the side of a building.
The subject of murals done in abandoned spaces brings the reader on to where the line between legal and illegal work becomes blurred. Disused buildings provide the perfect opportunity for muralists to let loose, uninhibited by the requirements of a buildings owner. The second chapter demonstrates some of the work that is produced in old factories, houses or just odd slabs of concrete. These spaces can be used in more unusual and innovative ways such as the work by Iemza who’s characters creep off the walls onto the floors or Zonenkinder who created a bonkers mural installation as part of a festival. In fact a lot of this content is produced at illegal mural festivals. One of these is the Centosette festival which took place in an abandoned building in Milan. The author relates how hundreds of people successfully participated in this festival which was organised without permission and was open to the public. He suggests that it functioned as a radical alternative to conventional art museums and challenged how they are used. Similarly The Dresden Muralismo Morte Museum was an experiment in democratising art. Part of the exhibition was in a disused government building that was also used without permission whilst being open to the public. It acted as “a critique of the bureaucracy surrounding many museums.” Moving on from this the fourth section of the book is really fun. It looks at illegally produced street murals and has some great documentary pictures alongside descriptions of the actions by the artists. While being illegal they also highlight how graffiti is viewed differently in other parts of the world.
The last chapter is about digital methods of creating murals. These are images, that can be created on the spot, and projected onto the side of buildings using light. Although they are even more temporary than conventional graffiti the people creating them explain that they use them to challenge the viewer and change perceptions of the urban environment. It all reads like a large-scale art students project really although it looks like it would be entertaining to do. The final pages are given to a digital project of a different kind. The ‘facadeprinter’ is a cool invention that fires paint balls onto a wall to create a picture made up of hundreds of dots. There’s a picture of the machine in action blasting paint out eight meters up a wall!
Aside from the texts that accompany the picture content there are also some essays with more unusual subjects in the book. A really interesting article is about the evolution of the ‘whole car format’. Robert Kaltenhäuser begins with the Soviet agitprop trains which rolled around revolutionary Russia between 1919-1921 spreading the Bolshevik message. The carriages were the perfect surface for Futurist inspired art and so the whole car was created. Today while advertisers utilize the same format it is also subverted through graffiti. Kaltenhäuser believes that for train writers the whole car is their “aesthetic pinnacle”. However he also suggests a new direction of the format that is moving away from enlarged graffiti pieces toward approaching “the whole car as a larger, temporary and mobile art panel.” Pictures of unconventional graffiti illustrate this idea and in fact some of it is similar to the agitprop art of the Futurists. Finally I’ll end at the beginning by mentioning the informative introduction. This essay starts with Mexican muralism which, beginning in the early twentieth century, was inspired by revolution and social change. It was muralism that had lofty aims to educate the public, politicise public space and foster a national culture. One of the Mexican muralists, David Siqueiros, pioneered the use of aerosol technology in his work. However as Mexican muralism went out of political vogue from the 50’s other muralists in cities such as Paris or New York began experimenting with spraycans. In time the most popular of these artists would be subsumed by the art market and a new muralism emerged that rejected this commercialisation. This is the new muralism that is optimistically seen as an exercise of “direct democracy in public space.”
Muralismo Morte is intelligently put together and successful in its approach. Not only does it combine legal and illegal, the vast with the modest, with different styles and techniques, it also adds context and discusses the subject in an original way. There was some content that I didn’t enjoy so much. I found some of the photographs to be slightly mundane representations of what the average person on the street would recognise as street-art. Whilst the ‘digital paintings’ highlight the broad range within muralism they also wouldn’t look out of place in some superficial exhibition of conceptual art at the Tate Modern. However the obvious subject of Doel is treated in a considered way by Resto who provides a more personalised view. He is also critical of the effect that the street-art carnival has had on the place and its remaining residents. Muralismo Morte was published a few years before Jens Bessers most recent book which, as ‘street-art’ has become synonymous with gentrification, uses the term in a more ambiguous way. The strength of this book lies in the brilliant knowledge of the subject and, despite my personal preference, the openness to alternative types of graffiti. I’ll finish with a great quote in the book from a Mexican Minister of Education: “paint as much as you can, as ugly as you want – the main thing is to paint profusely!”