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Kunsthalle Basel opens Tercerunquinto – Graffiti

Kunsthalle Basel presents Tercerunquinto – Graffiti an exhibition on view 9 June 2013–30 April 2014.

With Graffiti, the Mexican artist collective Tercerunquinto (‘a third of a fifth’) delivers a conceptual message at the interface of institution and public space. Awaiting the viewer on the back wall of the Kunsthalle is a completely black surface, whose unassuming initial impression belies a work of remarkable potency. Contrary to the expectations generated by the title, we see no political slogans or sophisticated pieces of graffiti art. The original white wall shimmers sporadically through the monochrome black surface, and only a few areas that did not receive several coats still contain clues that Graffiti was created by spray­painting.

Tercerunquinto invited young people with no experience of graffiti or art­making to spray the wall, although not as part of a collaborative project but with the stipulation that each person worked on the wall alone, documented by the artists. Within the parameters set by Tercerunquinto, which included the colour (black) and the form (a blanket covering of the wall, with no signs or symbols), those taking part were free to decide how long they painted for and how much of the wall they covered. Their contributions gradually accumulated into an overall picture, in which individual gesture and authorship are neutralized in a mono­ chrome plane. Tercerunquinto thus radicali-zes a theme of art — monochrome painting — that has been a regular topic of the artistic discourse since Suprematism and Constructivism.

Founded as an artist collective in 1996 in Monterrey, Mexico, by Julio Castro Carreón (born1976), Gabriel Cazares Salas (born1978) and Rolando Flores Tovar (born1975), Tercerunquinto pursues collaborative and context­based strategies that engage with specific architectural situations. Interventions in public spaces, and negotiations that investigate the terms and conditions of institutions, are core strands of their work. Not limited, by its very nature as a collective, to singular authorship, Tercerunquinto frequently involves outsiders, and in particular people unconnected with the world of the arts. It is their participation that rounds out and completes the collective’s works. Tercerunquinto lays bare what lies behind physical appearances, in works that depart from symptomatic points at which material and theoretical levels of meaning condense.

Since 1998 Tercerunquinto has treated the wall as motif and material in various contexts: as a sculptural element and in its architectural setting, with a focus on its in-stitutional function, as a surface for signs, as a physical barrier and conceptual nexus. The artists are continually deconstructing and building walls, penetrating them, painting over them and uncovering them layer by layer.

Graffiti is one of the most commonly employed strategies of protest in public spaces. Anonymous, concise, confrontational, clandestine and fast, its slogans are indicators of an attitude hallmarked by dissatisfaction, unease and disillusionment. Tercerunquinto’s Graffiti addresses this same attitude, which seeks public expression in an act of rebellion and thereby challenges the ruling authorities. For young people in a state of latency typical of their age, still innocent in terms of active political participation and hence with no lasting public voice, spray­painting offers a first means of leaving marks on the ‘skin’ of the public space. The collectively produced image on the back wall of the Kunsthalle becomes an expression of the inhibited potential of youth.

The combination of text and image, so closely entwined in the elaborately stylized pieces of graffiti produced since the 1980s, aims at a symbolic occupation of the public space. These “empty signifiers”, as Baudrillard describes graffiti, insert themselves into the urban system of signs. These new signs remain disconcertingly illegible, since their referents are no longer accessible to outsiders. Tercerunquinto’s work combines the confrontational potential of written and pictorial statements in the public space — an illegal form of protest that has been practised since antiquity — with the persuasive power of art that, from its position in similarly public locations, communicates ideological programs in purely visual terms: from Romanesque church portals to the politically connoted wall paintings of the 20th century, such as Mexican muralismo.

For Tercerunquinto, the black surface, the black ‘picture’, finds its rationale in the understanding of public space as filled with signs. Graffiti is a picture that no longer shows anything. It is what it is, and is at the same time a projection screen full of refe-rences within its fundamental painterly parameters of plane and color. The permeable surface simultaneously conceals and reveals the wall of the Kunsthalle that terminates the building at the back, and which thus marks the outer shell of the institution and the boundary between inside and outside. The picture makes this boundary both visible and porous: it links the wall as an architectural element with the interior that lies behind it and at the same time extends the exhibition space into the public.

The black surface prompts a close reading of the wall within the surrounding architec-ture and makes it an element within the public space, in which architecture becomes a pictorial language. The participatory dimension of Graffiti acknowledges the idea that public space is only produced and legitimized by the intentions and activities of the people associated with it. Graffiti takes up from earlier works and continues Tercerunquinto’s exploration of the relationship between architecture and public space, individual and society, institution and artistic practice on the back wall of the Kunsthalle.