In 1975 when General Franco died there were no graffiti on the walls of Spanish cities. They were clean, dead old spaces. And then it began. It was often done for fun as a way of disturbing the peace. Running away was often the best part.
In certain cities in a state of transition, Barcelona in the years after Franco, say, or Johannesburg in the years after apartheid when the artist Robin Rhode, who was born in 1976, lived there, there is something lovely about making marks on a wall; drawing on a wall is a way of brashly taking possession of a place; it is a way of dismantling an old stability without having to run for election.
Rhode brought this attitude towards the walls of a city a step further by making a joke out of it, or something that seemed like a joke. If he drew a urinal on a wall, then he literally tried to piss into it as a performance; if he drew in chalk a basketball hoop, then he photographed someone trying to jump up towards it and drop a real ball into it. If he used a bicycle in a piece, then it was almost a virtual bicycle with someone trying to ride it. And if there were shoes, then they were made of chalk so that the dancer’s trajectory was marked out on the floor.
Some of this was pure silliness and thus it was much appreciated by art students and foolish curators of whom the world is full. But some of it was too interesting and strange to be so easily dismissed. The photographs of a real cyclist and his bicycle drawn in chalk are actually very pure and beautiful, and the pictures of a man trying to mend a puncture on a life-size car drawn in chalk are very funny. The photographs of a fellow on a skateboard trying to skate along a curved line in chalk are simply ingenious. And the texture and arrangement of shape and light in a piece called ‘Stone Flag’ from 2004 – yes, the flag is made of some old bricks – made it a lightly wonderful and subtle piece of work.
Since some of the shapes Rhode has made have the mystery of Russian Constructivist drawings, and since some of his work has the playfulness and suggestiveness of music (in 2004 he drew musical instruments on the wall and then tried to play them), or indeed dance (more than the heaviness and seriousness, say, of a literary text), then it is easy to see why Rhode became interested in Mussorgsky’s piano piece ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ (1874) in which the music attempts to conjure up not only the pictures on the wall but a sense of a figure walking from one to the other.
Beginning at the Lincoln Center in New York, he has collaborated with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in creating a set of images, animations, to accompany a performance of this music.
This has all the potential for excitement as a great big lazy yawn. And it is not helped by the artists’ efforts to explain themselves. Andsnes, for example, has said: ‘We want our collaboration to be transcendental, to be a real experience and by mixing this great piece of music with Robin’s art we are hoping to achieve that goal.’
What rescues the project is the quality of Rhode’s mind, the lack of vagueness, foolishness and earnestness in the images he makes. The minute he sees a piano, for example, he starts to think of all the funny things you could do with it – take its wires out, for example, and bring them for a walk and make them dance a bit, or get the piano and drown it, or make piano keys in chalk and let them loose.