Stereotypically viewed as the domain of rebellious youths and bored delinquents, street art has evolved into a highly sort after and commoditised industry. Its success in recent decades has led to street art infiltrating auction houses, public art galleries as well as private collections. It’s even made its way to the art collection held here at the University of Wollongong (otherwise known as the UOWAC). Now many of you may be surprised to hear that UOW even has an art collection – from first impressions the university seems more concerned about collecting ducks.
UOW however has over 4500 pieces of art in its collection – a collection which includes street art.
If you wander over to building 24 you’ll notice something different about the corridors on each floor. Usually art from the UOWAC is placed throughout the campus buildings or acquired at the behest of the faculty that resides in said building. But like Swiss army knives and goon sacks building 24 is multi-purpose. No one faculty ‘owns’ it and rooms in the building are often hired by groups in the wider community. To accommodate the diversity of the building, UOWAC commissioned three different artists to decorate each of the floors. One of the artists commissioned was the Sydney born, New York based street artist Vexta, who’s bright and fantastical artwork Fragmented Worlds adorns building 24’s first floor corridor.
Vexta’s psychedelic blend of geometric and natural forms transform the otherwise bland white corridors of ennui uni students are ever so familiar with. Her commissioned work is a combination of canvas paintings, sculpture and stencilled paintings applied directly to the corridor walls. Vexta was given artistic freedom when commissioned, the only stipulation being that the resulting artwork be interesting to a young audience and somehow connected to the university, the Illawarra region or student life in general (these guidelines are applied to all works acquired as part of the UOWAC). The inclusion of street art in the UOWAC demonstrates its commitment to celebrating diversity of culture and contemporary talent. UOW’s attempt to keep up with the young folks by including street art in its collection reminds us to consider the peculiarities of curating this art form.
Acquiring street art for a collection can be ethically questionable – and not for the reasons you might think. In regards to UOWAC’s Vexta artwork it was a fairly straightforward process. Vexta was asked to do a commission, she agreed, the work was completed, UOWAC acquires something awesome by a street artist. Everyone is happy. Issues arise however when galleries and private collectors acquire street art directly from off the streets. When a street artist creates a work in a public space it is commonly viewed by the artist – and by many of the locals – as a gift to the community. Physically removing the work for sale (as has been done with many of the walls the infamous street artist Banksy has painted on) is unethical. You wouldn’t take a Picasso from a gallery and sell it – but it’s ok to take a Banksy on the side of a factory? When auction houses sell and collectors buy street art removed from its original location then they not only ignore the wishes of the artist, they also devalue the artwork by removing it from its intended context.
Street art have such fleeting lives in their natural habitat. The art form, as you may have guessed, is art found on the ‘streets’. It is directly applied – in most cases illegally – to features of suburban and metropolitan landscapes. Street artists are fully aware that their work will likely only exist for a small period of time before local councils remove it, so the durability of a work isn’t that important. Being directly applied to a buildings surface is a defining feature of street art, but means its permanency in an art collection is affected. Materials used may not be hard-wearing or properly sealed, leading to deterioration. Additionally should a curator wish to rotate the art on exhibit in a collection for example, any art applied directly to a building (as is common with street art) may have to be removed, destroying the work in the process. Vexta’s Fragmented Worlds however avoids this issue by including removable canvas paintings as well as a sculptural piece alongside the artist’s typical direct-to-wall stencil paintings. This ensures that the UOWAC retains permanent elements of Fragmented Worlds should Vexta’s work need to be removed from its current location.
The UOWAC is unusual for its tendency to leave art on display once installed – the idea being that art owned by the university be as accessible and engaging as possible. Fragmented Worlds engages the viewer with its vibrancy and changes the entire atmosphere where it’s installed. That’s not to forget however that it’s still situated in a highly utilised university corridor – not a gallery. The only thing messier than a uni student is many uni students, and this is evident when you notice the affect thousands of students using the corridor have had on Vexta’s artwork. As previously said, street artists use walls and buildings as their canvases – but this also leaves them more exposed to damage. The aspects of Fragmented Worlds directly painted to the walls have already been scuffed by the everyday activities of busy staff and students. However due to the external, urbanised locales street art is commonly associated with, the unavoidable wear and tear perhaps subtracts less from Vexta’s art than it would a more traditional painting in the UOWAC.
Discovering street art within UOW’s official art collection was, to say the least, unexpected. This is the same UOW after all that fastidiously removes unauthorised student chalk drawings. The inclusion of Vexta’s Fragmented Worlds adds diversity and contemporary artistic excellence to the UOWAC whilst engaging the audience to rethink their perceptions of the street art genre. Recognising street art as a legitimate form of artistic expression demonstrates the modernity of the art we’re lucky enough to experience at UOW.
Just don’t expect the excuse “it’s art” to hold up if you graffiti the McKinnon building.