Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Underbelly Project, Big Art or What?

It’s only been a year since The Underbelly Project sprang from the pages of the The New York Times and the Times of London. From a certain point of view what’s interesting is that it embraced both graffiti and street art. That’s but secondary to the question of whether or not tUP is a PR stunt intended to set-up a nice cash payout or whether it is, for lack of a better word, real. [My posts on tUP are here.]

As someone who feels the mystery of dark places, hidden away, even illegal, I think it was conceived and executed in the grandest style of the The Real. Until the day of the Big Reveal. Then all hell broke loose and tUP ceased to be the property of PAC and Workhorse, the founders and curators, and the many artists who participated.

Just who put what down there in the hole and why, that’s become secondary to what gets made of it in our minds. That is, what gets made of the knowledge that it’s there and of whatever tangible evidence we have of it, photos, videos, and the like. Well, it seems that we’re in for an exhibition at Art Basel in Miami, a special edition book, and a serf’s edition of the same book to be released in February.

From my point of view, what matters most, and it’s almost the only thing that matters, is whether or not the importance of the site itself somehow survives this assault by Big Art. It’s the site itself that spawned the project, as though those abandoned tunnels called Workhorse and PAC into the ground so they’d conceive and execute the project. And it’s the site itself that’s effectively beyond reach.

Those who were there, they remember. The rest of us, we can see photos and videos and hear accounts, but we cannot know, not directly, what’s down there under the ground. We cannot feel THAT mystery, or THAT fear. THAT’s what’s real. If the shadow of that reality is able to survive all the Big Art packaging and hype, then reality will have one.

But it will be a tough struggle.

* * * * *

Remember, in the beginning there was the name, and the name was on a wall. Someone else’s wall. The name became a claim: I EXIST, I WAS HERE.

If you take the name off the wall and put it onto a canvas, well, then it’s only a name. A name without a claim. A photograph of the name on the wall preserves a memory of the claim. Perhaps the Underbelly documents will do that and do it well.

You see—or maybe you don’t—that’s what’s so difficult to get across, the importance of the place. That’s because art-on-canvas or art-on-boards IS NOT about place. It can go anywhere. But graffiti and street art live in the place, and the place lives through them. That abandoned subway stations IS NOT a gallery that just happens to be rather inaccessible. It’s not a gallery at all. It’s a living place, giving life to the art on its walls and gaining life from that art.

That fact that we can no longer access that place at least forces us to think about the place itself. That’s important.

OTOH, an exhibit “fashioned to simulate the rawness of the abandoned station four stories beneath the bustle of New York City,” that bothers me. That sounds a bit too much like a jungle adventure ride at a theme park, as though the Art Baselers are going to get the Disney version, with grit. Will the exhibit aspire to an oppressive authenticity, or will it breathe?

We shall see.

Or, rather, some of us will so. Most of us, not.

Stay tuned.

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