Originally from Italy, Blu is an artist who has decorated buildings across the entire globe – from Rio de Janeiro, where in 2007 he painted Christ the Saviour emerging out of heaps of guns, through to Kraków, where in 2014 he painted the pope speaking to people through a bell-shaped megaphone.
Blu does not only paint in the outdoors (although this is what he's most famous for), but also creates video works and animations which he publishes on the Internet. When he began in the late 1990s, he was a street artist painting illegal graffiti across Bologna. After a few years, he swapped spray paint for a roller mounted on a telescopic stick, and thus began developing a style of his own for which he is now recognised. He usually depicts a huge human figure, the details of which carry a message connected to the site of the painting, or the circumstances that form the context for its creation.
It was through enlarging the scale and changing technique that Blu legalised his creative work. The giant formats have to be created with the consent of the building’s proprietors, they cannot be created in haste and secrecy. He's usually commissioned by various institutions and organisations.
The principal idea behind murals is that they are an evanescent, temporary thing. The possibility of someone painting over the wall or the mere fact of the mural deteriorating with time is usually taken into account by those who engage in street and urban art. Murals are also often created on buildings whose future is largely uncertain. There are also cases when great murals become symbolic of the place they were created in, and when someone tries to get rid of them, the community protests.
The conservation of outdoor paintings is a controversial matter. Artistic milieux do not necessarily see the need for or even the possibility of restoring such paintings. But the owners of the buildings, which are frequently the city authorities, would like to have some control over the aesthetics of their property.
The first time one of Blu’s murals was erased was in 2008. The painting on the wall of the Deitch Gallery in New York was subject to censorship because of its political content. It depicted about a dozen coffins covered with a one-dollar banknote instead of the traditional American flag. The owner of the gallery, Jeffrey Deitch, who in the 1980s went under the moniker of a graffiti art advocate, ordered for the mural to be erased one day after its completion.
The latest mural by Blu to be erased and at the same his most famous work is the two-part work on the Cuvrystraße in Berlin, which, according to the city authorities, ceased to match the image of Kreuzberg – a part of the city which became largely gentrified after the fall of the Berlin wall. The two iconic paintings were created by Blu right next to a border checkpoint between the former East and West Germany. The first painting depicted a man in a shirt, a necktie and two gold watches, which were also handcuffs. The second painting showed two men (one of them turned upside-down) trying to tear off masks from their faces, with fingers shaped to form the letters E – for East, and W – for West.
Following a petition signed by some seven thousand people, and after consulting with the artist himself, a group of Berliners conducted a symbolic funeral of the mural, painting it black. This was a manifestation of protest against the policy adopted by the city wherein all unused areas were to be sold off and anything which was not bringing in profit was to be privatised. And it’s a known fact that wherever private investors appear, rent goes up. And the students, artists and musicians who have made Berlin into the city it is have to move out. A few months prior to this event, another of Blu’s murals in Berlin – a huge hourglass, a metaphor for global warming – was replaced by an advertisement for a Hollywood production.
Even if a mural becomes the symbol of a city district, and becomes a recognised element of the cityscape, it is not easy to preserve. Can we consider the story of Blu’s mural in Warsaw and its successful defence an exception? Let’s remember how it all happened.
Blu in Warsaw – Mateusz Ściechowski
In 2010, Blu, who was already famous across the world following his Tate Modern exhibit and his collaboration with Banksy, was invited to take part in the Updates festival in Warsaw. The west wall of the Kamienica pod Żaglowcem (The "Under the Sailboat" Apartment House) on 45 Sienna street was adorned with seven marionette-soldier figures, whose helmets and uniforms were decorated with currency symbols. Through this piece, Blu evoked the city’s history – since the building on Sienna is one among the very few in the city centre that did not get entirely destroyed during the war. Blu’s work also draws our attention to the definition of war itself, which is a tool in the hands of those in power, and in which soldiers are mere marionettes. With the pale green of the soldier’s uniforms, the work is also one of the first murals in which Blu employed colour. His earlier realisations were black and white.
The artist came to Warsaw invited by the Vlep[v]net Foundation, one of the oldest organisations to be involved in the issues of art in the urban space. Mateusz Ściechowski (aka Miesto), the curator of the Updates festival, tells Culture.pl:
"We wanted to make murals which would tell the city’s story and touch upon significant issues. Blu was one of those artists, because his works have this anti-consumerist, anti-globalist and anti-war character. He often evokes local issues. (…) I cannot remember whether we talked about the fact that the headquarters of Bumar, a producer of weapons, is situated across the street from that building. (…) he painted it in four days in July. It was very hot then, some 35 degrees. I don’t know how he did it, how he could take it. He only left the scaffolding once a day, there was a little cup up there into which he peed, and another one from which he drank. When he needed more paint, he did come down right above the ground, but he did not go outside. A very interesting figure, who confirms his engagement with his entire person."
From the city’s point of view – Wojciech Wagner
The soldier-marionettes of Blu compose themselves very well into the cityscape. And they have been lucky – they are visible from the multi-lane Aleja Jana Pawła II (John Paul II Avenue), Warsaw's widest street. A majority of the capital’s murals are hidden away in little patios between buildings. Perhaps this is the reason why, five years after Blu stepped off the scaffolding, the 1200 square metres of the wall were considered as the most attractive location for the mural by another artist – Jakub Woynarowski, who recently represented Poland at the 14th Biennale of Architecture in Venice.
The project was an initiative of the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw, which was responsible for organising celebrations for 250 years of public theatre in Poland. As part of these celebrations, the Institute sought to engage artists that work in genres other than that of theatre. Wojciech Wagner, the Head of the Aesthetics of Public Space Department in Warsaw to whom the Institute addressed a request for wall space, explained in a talk with Culture.pl:
"The philosophy behind our previous approach towards the murals was liberal and a result of the nature of these works. We assumed that it is a temporary activity by definition. The genesis of these works is often unofficial, illegal, and thus one that does not take longevity into account. And the endurance of these realisations is also technically limited. After a few years we face the dilemma of whether they are to be renovated and who would finance such renovations, or whether they ought to be rather substituted by something new."
A new, better project?– Jakub Woynarowski
The point of departure for Jakub Woynarowski’s project was the theme of the 250th anniversary: "Przeżyjemy w teatrze” ("We Will Survive in the Theatre”). The mural depicts a giant eye gazing from the stage of a theatre. Aesthetically, it is evocative of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when the idea of the theatre as a space for discussing public life first emerged.
"On the one hand, inspiration was drawn from works of the French architect of the Enlightenment period, Claude Nicolas Ledoux. He designed a monumental theatre and created the emblematic image of an eye, in which architecture is reflected. It is the creator’s eye – a mystical image but one arising from rational premises. On the other hand, I drew inspiration from surrealism, especially the painting by René Magritte, which also depicts a giant eye – here as a means of expressing illusion as well as the uncanny. The reflection of reality can be deformed, but also creates the possibility of making some subconscious phenomena emerge into consciousness. It is as if I were tossing a bridge over rationality and surrealism, the past, the present, and perhaps also the future of theatre. (…)
It is an eye that we look at and that looks at us, that pushes us to ask questions whether we are viewers in the theatre or actors who are being viewed. Public theatre can also be a form of performance that we take part in, rather than some distant spectacle that we look onto from the passive position of an observer. Because public life is also a form of performance in which we all participate”, says Jakub Woynarowski in a talk with Culture.pl.
The project is no doubt interesting, but was there no other equally attractive – and unoccupied – wall in Warsaw?
Internet hate – a social action
The Theatre Institute’s announcement that the iconic mural by Blu is going to be replaced by Woynarowski’s work quickly stirred un uproar. An event boycotting the event was created on Facebook, and over four thousand people joined within a few days. The writer Sylwia Chutnik commented upon this situation in one of her columns entitled "Leave the Blu soldiers alone!”. In the meantime, the Institute released two videos in which top Polish curators and museum workers, – Sebastian Cichocki and Tomasz Fudala from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw explain what a prominent artist Woynarowski is, and just how ethereal the art form of a mural is. "This is weak”, reads a Facebook post commenting the destruction of Blu’s mural. "Activities of the most important cultural institutions of Poland are the proof of either their contempt for one of the most interesting fields in contemporary art, or their complete thoughtlessness.”, the Fundacja Sztuki Zewnętrznej (Outer Art Foundation) organisers add on Facebook.
Are they right? The opinion of thousands of Internet users were addressed by the Theatre Institute in an official statement published on their website.
In turn, the website of Fundacja Vlep[v]net declares the following:
"Prior to the Theatre Institute’s undertaking of preparatory works, [our institution] contacted Fundacja Vlep[v]net, the initiator and producer of the mural that presently decorates the building’s wall. Due to the rank of the artist and the significance of this work, we have taken on a series of responsibilities – a photographic and video documentation of Blu’s mural, as well as the process of painting the entire wall over with black paint in the first phase of the works, which will constitute a symbolic farewell, as well as proof of respect for a priority principle for many street art authors, that of not painting directly over [preceding] work.”
"Fundacja Vlep[v]net has nothing to do with the decisions taken by the city. The Theatre Institute, which is realising its social campaign on top of the Blu mural, asked for our opinion after all of the decisions concerning painting over this work were already made. In spite of our unequivocally critical opinion of this idea, the Theatre Institute and the city decided to carry on with their activities. We also underscore that we do not currently have any rights to administer the wall, and the only thing that we can do is to appeal to intellectual milieu for the preservation of this important realisation, whose message is incredibly pertinent.”
The further fate of Woynarowski’s project – Dorota Buchwald
The online boycott as well as protests of the street art and urban art world incited a discussion on what one is and what one is not allowed to do to the city. It also proved that the community’s voice does matter, because, on behalf of the artist and the organiser (the BWA Warszawa gallery which represents Woynarowski), the Theatre Institute forwarded a statement which takes back the realisation of the mural on the wall of the building on 45 Sienna street. Wojciech Wagner commented:
Woynarowski’s project has been transferred into the public domain, and a contest is to decide upon the city that will receive funding for its realisation. Subsequent murals can also be created, after agreeing with the artist on format and place.
"We did not expect such a strong reaction and for so many people to have a bond with this mural. Undoubtedly, it is not our aim to do anything against society, or those who sympathise with the work. The question of how to approach murals will definitely have to be addressed together with all of the interested parties. Whether some should not be treated in an exceptional way, to be given a chance to last longer.”
Dorota Buchwald, the head of the Theatre Institute explains in her talk with Culture.pl:
"It will not be created in this place but it will pass into the public domain, it will be multiplied and maybe this idea actually pleases us more that the one-site realisation. (…) Jakub Woynarowski has also given away the copyright to his project to those who want to make t-shirts, posters, cups, or whatever. We will wait for applications until 20th June. Then we will choose the cities, and the places.”
Advertising or art? – Tomasz Thun-Janowski
The whole issue was not only about the unique value of Blu’s mural. What was disqualifying for street artists was the fact that Woynarowski’s painting was to include the logos of the organisers of the 250th anniversary of public theatre in Poland.
"Woynarowski’s painting is a mural, but let us not forget that it is also an advertisement. It is a promotional campaign for a social action. Which is cool, I feel, but maybe not on that very wall”, says Artur Turowski from the Fundacja Vlep[v]net in his talk with Culture.pl.
In its official statement, the Foundation declares:
"The decision to paint over an iconic politically rebellious mural, and the use of the wall for advertising activity are considered by us a symptom of the many years’ futile policy of the city wherein artistic activity is instrumentalised and urban space is appropriated for commercial projects in the guise of street art.”
It is not right to cover up the work of Blu with an advertisement. But was it really supposed to be an advertisement?
"The allusions that Woynarowski was a concealed sell-out were off the point. The mural that the Theatre Institute planned to paint was an artistic one with a good, public message. And not a commercial one, at all. Woynarowski is a top-class artist and he deserves respect. I know that he pulled out also because of the atmosphere that came to surround his figure, a very mean and unpleasant one.”, says Tomasz Thun-Janowski, the director of the Cultural Bureau of the city of Warsaw. "Considering Woynarowski a sell-out is an act of either bad will or ignorance."
The conservation of murals– Fundacja Vlep[v]net
Blu’s mural is to stay in Warsaw, at least for the time being. There are some who are happy about it, while others have a sense of distaste, because the whole thing is not as simple as it may seem.
But the fact the Blu’s mural is ageing does not at all bother the milieu of street and urban artists. Blu’s work was actually created to look somewhat worn from the beginning.
"It’s too bad the whole turmoil took place. I have the impression that nothing has resulted from it. We are left with an old, ageing mural in Warsaw, and the sense that each such a piece cannot be painted over. Or, with the suggestion that those street and urban art works that are, by their very nature, ethereal, at times created at the limit of legitimacy, are supposed to function like that forever. This worries me, because we don’t have an excess of free wall space for us to be able to paint more and leave the previously created ones. The organisations that create do not always have the means and possibilities of looking after the good condition of their own works. That is why I do not understand the suggestion that these works should remain, and I think I don’t agree with it”, says Tomasz Thun-Janowski, the head of the city’s Cultural Bureau.
"The mural was made with diluted paint, which was to create the impression that it is dissolving. The city did tell us that the mural’s condition was deteriorating, asking if we intend to repaint it. We, we kind of a right do we have to repaint something that was created by an artist? It would be as if someone would come to Prague and began to repaint the Muchozol. Would that make it the same mural as the one that was previously there? No, that is already something new" – says Artur Turowski from the Vlep[v]net in a talk with Culture.pl.
Vlep[v]net’s Rafał Rosołowski addresses the voices of critique about the illegal graffiti covering the mural’s lower parts, and making the whole look bad:
Mateusz Ściechowski explains,
"The artist himself does not have a problem with this, it is the same case with many of his works. For us, the fact that things created without permission are coming up at the bottom of the mural is proof that the street is alive. This is not a lack of respect for the artist, but a need for community and of showing something in this place.”
"Those situations, when dwarves of the Pomarańczowa Alternatywa [Orange Alternative] are conserved, or when the Fighting Poland anchors [symbols of the Warsaw Uprising] discovered on walls are covered over with glass – this makes sense. But the murals that came out of the graffiti culture, a punk and street art culture do not necessarily have to conserved. First and foremost because street art is a temporary art. Everyone who goes outside with a can of paint is aware of the fact that first, he can be caught, and second, he can get painted over.”
Warsaw will not be the street art capital
Warsaw can be proud of the fact that its citizens defended the ethereal work of an artist within the city’s space. But there remains the memory of the difficult exchange between public institutions and the street and urban art milieu.
"Warsaw does not aspire to being the capital of street art. We have no such ambition. We have the Programme for Developing the Culture of Warsaw, and one of its characteristics and goals is to ensure the development of a variety of creativity. And this variety is of a huge value here, which means that street art should have and has its place in Warsaw. Because there are a lot of these murals that do have an artistic value”, says the Bureau’s director, Tomasz Thun-Janowski.
In a statement the addressed the Facebook action, Wojciech Wagner, head of the Department of Public Space Aesthetics of the city or Warsaw adds:
"(…) but it is also clear that the rapid development of standard procedures for the regularly emerging street-art and mural initiatives will have to be worked out, together with all the interested parties, in order to avoid future conflict.”
This dialogue is now ahead of us. But the collective voice of the dwellers of Warsaw, who boycotted the decision of city authorities has already shown that their identification with the capital city is growing in strength, even if a majority of them are not Warsaw natives.
Author: Agnieszka Sural, 28.07.2015
Video: Kasia Łuka, Marek Sokołowski
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 4/08/2015