Displays’ Displacement

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When you see an artwork ‘in context’, how expansive is that context? How far can a work move before it becomes ‘decontextualized... in a different space’?

In Detroit, a group removed a Banksy work from near an abandoned Packard plant. The 555 Non-profit gallery which cut away the wall is now engaged in a legal dispute with the owner of the Packard site over the mural. The dispute brings to mind so many interesting questions. Banksy may have intend his mural to be temporary, and only seen for a limited time in the context of the decaying auto plant. Did the gallery strip the mural of its context by removing it? How is that removal much different than the stripping of pre-Columbian stelae from central and south America? The techniques of sawing are probably similar, and we are left with a decontextualized panel in a different space, left to imagine what the work would have looked like in its original, though perhaps threatened, context.

Can street art have a stable context to preserve? Streets can be empty or bustling with traffic and walkers; daylit or darkened or neon; well swept or litter-strewn; sweltering or snowy or rainy and windswept. There might even be greenery, cultivated or invasive, taking the street close to what David Cooper observes about gardens: that they are an intersection of artifice and nature where organic change is an aspect of the aesthetic experience and seasonal variation may be planned for. Buildings, of course, are reliably inorganic, but their use is mutable and an empty, abandoned or even ruined building may be evocative in very different ways from one in constant use, so that when a building falls into or is rescued from disuse the aesthetic properties of any art on its surface might plausibly be said to change with its circumstances.

Creating public art, then, looks likely to involve relinquishing considerable control over context. We assume that Van Gogh did not intend his colours to fade, and here we are probably fairly safe in appealing to creative intention; but criteria of intention become tricky even when we move to (for example) Jackson Pollock; when it comes to the intended context of a piece of street art, how much stability can an artist intend?

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