When Blek Le Rat appeared in Melbourne late December, 2009, for an exhibition of his works at Metro Gallery, he and his art attracted hundreds of Melbourne street artists. Melbourne with its multiple laneways, intersecting main roads of the city centre, is a repository of street art culture. The walls of neighboring suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood are extensively covered with the works of Rone; Phibs; Meggs; Sync; Wonderlust; Prizm; Makatron and The Tooth to mention but a few of the street artists that work under a collaborative collective known as Everfresh. The Metro Gallery itself gives over its inner walls for ‘performances’ from street artists like Reka and Stormy Mills, who attract considerable interest and it was inevitable that they were there, along with hundreds of practicing street artists and followers of the art form, to greet Blek on a balmy summer night in Melbourne
It is, of course, difficult to represent a selection of Blek Le Rat’s art in one gallery space. His wide interests whether social targets; philosophical preoccupations; political awareness if not affiliation; cross-cultural aesthetics and unique imaginative vision draw from the lived moment. His immediate experience of working aesthetically within a globalised socio-political milieu is fed by a deep knowledge of mythology and art history. When I asked him whether he draws on mythological or spiritual archetypes ( angels, Christianity; art from antiquity etc), in order to access a universal message via images, he replied: ‘Yes. (it is] because people have been inspired for a long time by our mythological roots of the ancient times and street art makes no exception here’. The Metro exhibition for example showed Angel (Fig 1); Rhapsody in Green (Fig 2) Jesus (Fig 3) and The Death of Macho ( Fig 4) reflecting in this selection Blek’s conversations with history: its art; its ideologies and its spiritual imaginings.
The Metro Gallery did display a sampling of his works that successfully demonstrated his diversity, profundity and artistic skills. Blek Le Rat is aware that there is, at times, a negative response for street art to inhabit gallery walls but his point that this is not a contradiction is a valid one: ‘It may seem to be a contradiction but it isn’t one. Street art is ephemeral by its nature and the only way to keep a memory of what had happened in the street is to show your work on canvas or other surfaces in a gallery. Otherwise it would become like aboriginal art painted on the ground. Or art from other peoples who didn’t write down their traditions’.
Perhaps what holds these works together is the imaginative vision of a man, who began filling Parisian streets with painted, stenciled rats, choreographed by the artist’s eye to run, sleep, beg and generally engage in rat activities. The rats came in many guises and I treasure the rat I secured and move it at whim throughout my house. I see the rat as bringing the most feared of underground creatures into the light of day – a canny move of the artist. He draws on the spectators fears, usually kept in check by daily work and play, to perhaps confront hidden vermin of an elegant city – a metaphorical message that can be applied largely to other secret anxieties that feed our unconscious mind if not our conscious one. The rats from Blek’s imagination draw us below to the earth whilst his celestial winged figures draw the self to ascendant spiritual elements. This vision that moves from earth to sky in a vertical manner is criss-crossed with a horizontal one that encompasses the world of politics, social inequalities, consumerism and the impact of the computerization of our sensibilities. For me Running Man expresses openly fears of alienation and anger that we feel, but cannot express, about being part of a world that we feel powerless to change- and so we run screaming both away and towards our fate. I think also that he hopes that his art will stop the running man in his tracks with images that will heal and access the person within that loves himself : ‘ I love hidden places where I love to create a surprise. Surprising the passers by is a big strength of urban art’.
Blek when asked about his origins as a painter and his interest in politics in his early days as a graffiti artist in the 70s is not embarrassed to express that what is there is ‘about me’: ‘I wanted to scream to the world: “I exist. I am”. This need to escape anonymity was a state arrived at in the eighties when politics has not responded creatively to human needs: ‘I didn’t want to convey a political message because in 1981 already I didn’t believe anymore that politics could change something’. Despite an earlier dream to be a rock star, ironically rendered by Blek, who added it was a complicated dream given he could not play an instrument, Blek’s six years of studying art led him to embrace his fate that art ‘was for me the only way to express myself and to share with others my ideas, feelings and desires’. Although Blek insists on it being about himself, it was and continues to be about a self whose ideas, feelings and desires reached out to his world and saw there: atrocities, social inequalities, absurdities and an audience hungry for images that dealt with his experience of truth and beauty. It is a vision also that recognizes that laughter and irony have serious messages to convey.
Serious art emerged when Bush prepared for the war in Iraq: ‘I pasted hundreds of posters against this war. I followed the anti war demonstrations in Paris and pasted. I had started the campaign in Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie on January 1st. of that year’. Despite an earlier interest in politics, that did not involve a particular form of activism, Blek was now moved to make political statements: ‘I also pasted posters towards the release of French Journalist Florence Aubenas who was kidnapped in Iraq for five months’. The Metro exhibition included Avion (Fig. 5) – a foreboding image of a war machine flying through a darkened sky sucking into itself a flock of white birds.
Blek’s indictment of Social atrocities is communicated in images of the victims of a global economy such as The Baggage Child Opera (Fig 6) and Homeless Down Under (Fig.7). These images are about Blek tackling the serious problem of our urban centres throughout the world that has seen in the last twenty years an influx of beggars and homeless people living on the streets. Varied images on this subject were placed around the world (New York, London and Paris) with the intention of drawing attention to this issue and getting people to think about the problem. The image of the dark hooded beggar has many versions depending on what wall it has been stenciled or painted. The image in the Metro exhibition included a small well dressed child in miniscule scale – both a contrast to the beggar as well as a curious viewer of the plight of another.
Similarly Computer Head (Fig 8) has its precursors and is a particularly appropriate image for contemporary society given the extent that most of us working in the city, whether in offices or from a home base, spend most of our time in front of a computer whether we are an artist, an engineer, an academic, writer, ‘check-out chick’, librarian, art-dealer and all manner of trades people. This is the prime source of communication and often the only means of securing information essential for living. The idea came to Blek in 1991 ‘when I saw a man walking down the street with a cardboard television over his head’. The rendition in the Metro exhibition is a replica apart from a rather fat rat scurrying towards ‘computer man’. This whimsical somewhat amusing image has a cutting edge to it as does Minor Sins (Fig. 9), an image of a pre-pubescent girl in a pretty dress and hat who, holding a bright red balloon in one hand and smiling, whilst happily posing for an onlooker, has a cigarette hanging from her mouth and what seems to be some kind of alcoholic beverage in the other.
It would be an error, though, to see Blek as focused on critical commentary. He is in my view a man in search of truth. When he creates a sheep and places it in an urban environment, one is reminded of a rural one and the extent to which we have subjected ourselves to categorization. Prou and Adz mention in their book on Blek that the sheep in the first instance was inspired by a novella by Antoine Saint Exupéry that would have formed part of many French childhoods, titled The Little Prince. The protagonist, the little prince, asks a pilot who has crashed in the desert to ‘draw him a sheep’. Having been read this book as a child I was immediately reminded of its quirkiness and deep philosophical themes and began to see Blek as a grown-up little prince who travels the world with his wares, not only to make social commentary, but also to explore further imaginative possibilities. I think my favorite Blek work in the Metro show, apart from my very own rat, is Man Who Walks Through Walls. Blek, as an artist, like the little prince, leaves his home and travels the universe. The little prince represents a seeker of truth via the imagination. As he moves from planet to planet he meets with characters that all have a problem of a sort: There is the drunk who drinks to forget he is a drunk; there is the business man who is too busy to notice the little prince’s arrival as he attempts to count the stars as a means of owning them; the king who views all people as subjects and the conceited man who focuses only on procuring admirers. The existential philosophy that permeates the book is one that recognizes the absurdity of human behavior and seeks to create new values beyond tired traditional ones. The memento comes from the integrity and authenticity of the self – the sheer will to authenticate and love ones existence. Blek’s characters, stories, dancing and running people that walk out of the walls are seeking to make contact with the onlookers in order to understand and mend an otherwise absurd world. The most quoted lines from The Little Prince are those said by the fox when he is disenchanted with the prince when the latter leaves him. He says: ‘You can only see things with the heart; what is essential is invisible to the eye’. One gets the point- the best things cannot be merely seen in an empirical sense – they must be felt. What Blek achieves though, is the creation of street art that is seen and felt simultaneously- it meets the eye via the imagination and via his creations he ‘walks through walls’. When I asked Blek what texture he prefers to work on, he replied ‘ walls’ , and when I asked what his ultimate walls would be to have his characters walk through he answered: ‘ The Great wall of China, Borobodur in Java, the pyramids, Acropolis in Athens – strong places steeped in history’.
When the exhibition in Melbourne was over and Blek returned to Paris we knew that we had been taken on a visual adventure, across history, across cultures and into hidden areas of Blek’s imagination. These are the things that I remember from meeting the artist. His surprise at the friendliness of the Australians he met who he saw as providing a form of hospitality largely forgotten in Europe; his interest in the street art that permeates Melbourne’s inner city; his excitement when talking to Melbourne street artists who spoke about their experiments on walls; his disinterest in megalomaniacal art (over large pieces) and his prime interest in a piece of art that integrates itself and plays with the environment of the urban surroundings. I was finally left with a comment that was the response to my question regarding whether he liked some of his work more than others:
‘I don’t deny anything of what I have done. Of course there are art images that were more important but only because they were more important to others. Whenever I create something I leave something of myself. So that is why I cannot say I love this image more than another because, like everybody, I like myself a lot.’
These are sentiments that one earns by the courage to be oneself, to offer up ways of seeing from a position of authenticity that by the nature of the act leaves no room for regret.
Blek Le Rat is represented in Australia by
Fig 3. Jesus 2009, Screen print on 300gsm Paper, 88 x 73 cm.
Fig 10. Man Who Walks Through Walls 2008, Stencil Spraypaint on Canvas, 250 x 170 cm
Fig1. Angel 2009, Acrylic on board, 200 x 125 cm
Fig. 8. Computer Head 2009, Acrylic on board, 210 x 140 cm
Fig 4. The Death of Macho, 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 210 x130 cm
Fig. 9. Minor Sins 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 144 x 113 cm
Fig 2. Rhapsody in Green 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 205 x 130 cm
Fig 7. Homeless Down Under 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 156 x 116 cm.
Fig. 5. Avion 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 100 x 166 cm.