Everything That's Wrong With Putting Graffiti in a Museum

A show by the French collective Da Mental Vaporz in Tel Aviv demonstrates that removing street art from its context just doesn't work

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“Alone in the Dark” at Beit Ha'ir in Tel Aviv.
“Alone in the Dark” at Beit Ha'ir in Tel Aviv. Credit: Adi Feher
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

Graffiti tours have become a hot item in recent years, an in-demand product in the art services market. There are some neighborhoods in Tel Aviv where it’s hard to avoid running into groups of people who are gazing at a wall of some kind. You see them on Nahalat Binyamin, in the Levinsky market and Florentin; and in Haifa and Jerusalem as well. Many ads for the tours promise a great deal. Some make do with “exposure to street art,” but others invite the public to a “spirited tour” or one that will reveal “the secrets in the wall,” while there are those that seek “to discuss the philosophy that underlies the genre.”

Has the dramatic increase in the inscription of images on city walls led to a rise in the number of tours? Possibly. Or could it be that, instead of being content with the sterile conditions of museum or gallery spaces, the tours offer urban wandering in an open space, allowing viewers to get close to the works, to touch them, and – along with some impartial aesthetic observation – also provide time for a bit of shopping? This is internal tourism through cityscapes, which are transformed from neighborhoods where people live – often in crowded, cramped conditions – to places for exploration, for casting a curious gaze, for admiring the charming objects all around. To outside visitors, graffiti have become images of a neighborhood: dirty to a degree, arty to a degree, close to the materials of life itself.

Beit Ha’ir, the old Tel Aviv Town Hall in Bialik Square – which was renovated a decade ago and became, according to its website, a “singular museum center for urban culture in Tel Aviv” – has taken a logical step and introduced graffiti into its space, following in the footsteps of other museums and galleries in Israel and elsewhere. Its “Creative Collectives” project is currently hosting the French street-art collective Da Mental Vaporz, established at the end of the 1990s in the Paris suburbs. The group now consists of 10 artists from across France and is known worldwide for its large-scale wall paintings. Their art maintains the distinctive style of each member of the collective, while at the same time creating, in combination, works “of dark and tortured aesthetics,” in the words of the exhibition text.

“Alone in the Dark” at Beit Ha'ir in Tel Aviv. Credit: Adi Feher

The French artists spent two weeks in Tel Aviv, creating works covering the four stories of Beit Ha’ir. They painted on the inner walls, the floors and the ceilings; created an entrance of broken space, added plaster walls and hung acrylic glass from the ceiling; drew working sketches of the whole space and documented the act of assemblage on video. It’s all on display now in Beit Ha’ir, and the result is gloomy: graffiti revealed as insubstantial artistic work.

Such works lose their validity by being installed in a confined, closed museum display space. Wrested from their seminal creative context, their specific spatial venue, no longer part of a complex urban weave – they become “works of art.” They stand alone now, yet are also supposed to simulate the layout of the social setting from which they were removed. However, what we see are abstract forms, daubs of paint, fragments of images and shards of words deprived of context. The museum, in a foolish attempt to preserve the image of graffiti as self-explanatory urban creations, refuses to individuate them, to accord them any sort of explanation or offer a gateway to interpretation.

The exhibition’s wall text states that a unique “immersive art performance” was created in the museum space, especially adapted for it. But there is nothing immersive about the installation. It is not performance art and there is nothing that makes possible immersion in a virtual world. On the contrary, the works are meager and arouse little interest. They possess “everything”: large paintings that extend across wall surfaces and small postcard-like works that are scattered in a mix, like wallpaper. There are photographs of works from French cities, there are minimalist-type paintings. Inscription and image, dimness and play of light. One floor is darkened; there is colorful wallpaper next to the stairway. A play of monochrome and color marks the acrylic glass. But all this amounts to no more than an orchestration of the long-familiar, spurs nothing more than a jaded tour that requires only a short attention span.

What could have generated interest in the exhibition – the local context from which the works emerge, the different street-art traditions they evoke, the social codes they bear and their political meanings – remains outside it. In their absence, we are confronted with what resembles an aesthetic object and no more, and as such the exhibition is feeble. These are not works by Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Alone in the Dark” at Beit Ha'ir in Tel Aviv. Credit: Adi Feher

Museum of commemoration

The graffiti in the Beit Ha’ir Museum, formerly Tel Aviv’s city hall, can also be understood against the background of what happened to the graffiti created at the site of the present Tel Aviv municipality, where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November, 1995. A week after the prime minister’s murder, the walls of the parking area next to the murder site were covered with graffiti – words and paintings – in which many people responded to the assassination in visual images and in texts. A few years later, the municipality decided to paint the walls of the parking area and erased the graffiti. Some of them were photographed; the photos were framed and hung at the site. The original graffiti thereby became a museum exhibit, part of the act of memory, not only of the murder, but of the reaction to it. The graffiti were placed in a kind of museum: Wrested from their original creative context, framed and enclosed, they reappeared as display items in a “museum of commemoration.”

The works now on display in the Beit Ha’ir Museum are an epilogue to that act of erasure. It’s as though graffiti possess some sort of primal, material, authentic quality – “pre-artistic” – that is worth preserving, which can be done by installing the graffiti in a museum, putting them on show in an enclosed space, the better to see them. But in this space they are wrenched from their context, removed from their world, and their power fades, dissipated and weakened. A tour of graffiti becomes a museum tour, unaccompanied by any sort of expository and conceptual layout. What remains is an image of an image, a pale echo of what once existed in a social arena. Now, with the insistence on its function as an artistic object, it is no longer tenable.

Da Mental Vaporz, “Alone in the Dark”; curator: Ayelet Bitan Shlonsky; Beit Ha’ir Museum, 27 Bialik Street, Tel Aviv; phone 03-7240311; Mon-Thu 09.00-17.00; Fri, Sat 10.00-14.00; through March

“Alone in the Dark” at Beit Ha'ir in Tel Aviv. Credit: Adi Feher

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