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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

Urban Sprawl

The mind is a curious beast, and the way it approaches and interprets the senses is often a complete mystery to its owner. The act of looking at something and assessing its merits—or its shortcomings—is controlled almost completely by the subconscious, and this means our expectations of what we see are governed by our previous experiences.
In the field of art appreciation, this set of preconceptions is capable of rewarding the viewer, but the more common outcome is that it poisons the viewing experience. One salient example of this is the notion that art has to sit inside the four walls of a frame, or inhabit a gallery space; it must, in some way, have some sense of permanence, in a space reserved for art of its kind. As we move into a world dominated by the internet, and thus the almost completely free and open way in which images, videos and soundscapes can now be communicated, this expectation is beginning to change, but there is an old-school approach to impermanent art that often goes unnoticed.

In the spirit of an issue investigating the form of the Tabloid, it is appropriate to look at a form of art that could also be considered Tabloid; the intoxicating and surprisingly aesthetic world of temporary poster hoardings. By terms of definition, the world of poster hoardings is inherently tabloid, serving as a way to concisely disseminate information in a brief and populist format. This element of these posters is important because they do serve a utilitarian and commercial purpose; they are a form of advertising and of raising awareness. The hoardings that spring up on almost any free wall, lamppost, and even occasionally footpaths, to my eye serve as an essay in self-interest and self-promotion. But in order for this medium to live up to its full potential, the individual pieces have to be aesthetically pleasing. As well as clearly communicating information, the pasted posters have to pack a punch; the viewer’s expectations require that this form of advertising be visually pleasing as well as persuasive.

The motifs featured on posters do tend to stick in our minds, a result of being constantly bombarded by their images on a daily basis. ‘The Fly My Pretties’ concert posters, the ones that appear to form organically on the bollards of Cuba St biennially, have evolved constantly over time, but are always variations on one very simple and effective theme; the motif of the fluttering fantail, accompanied by highly stylised fern-like adornments. The very simplicity of these visual images, and their consistency over time, works perfectly for the medium of the footpath hoarding because most passers-by will not actually be stopping to read these posters. The real effect comes from the saturation of these images throughout an urban landscape, to the point that any one pedestrian will have seen the image over 100 times in a week, even if they don’t realize this fact. Still to this day, whenever I hear a song from that titular collective, the fern imagery unfurls in front of my eyeballs and the fantail flits away mischievously.  This is not a result of any great attention I paid to the artists, their concerts, or even their advertising campaigns. It is just a symptom of the condition of living in one place for a prolonged period of time alongside an artistic project such as ‘Fly My Pretties’.

From the perspective of the art critic, the hoardings are fascinating in a capacity that goes beyond the individual postings. The built-up layers of paper, paste, graffiti, gum, and dirt and grime picked up from exhausts and snuffed-out cigarette butts, make each of these sites a work of sculpture in their own right. The urban environment in Wellington would seem blank and off-putting without them, but right now, when they are on almost every surface in the central city, we hardly notice them at all on a conscious level.

So keep your eyes open and be aware of the media that’s being pushed on you every day. The reality is that people have been posting things on other people’s walls well before social media erupted, and they haven’t stopped yet.


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