Sick birds

Walls and other vertical surfaces are the usual choice of background for graffiti writers. So why do some people choose to write on the pavement? Maybe because it’s easy – no need to scale walls or climb ladders. Maybe because the pavement is relatively bare – there’s more asphalt and concrete available than empty walls. Maybe because property owners don’t dob you in if you write on the ground.

All that is probably part of it, but there are other reasons as well. Many pavement inscriptions are site specific. Is this spot in Enmore a place where someone leaves bread for pigeons? If so, there’s not much point in leaving a polite little cardboard notice for them. Perhaps the glaring message Bread is making birds sick will have some effect in deterring them from polluting the street, attracting rats … and giving birds vitamin deficiency diseases.

Expletive deleted

Cadigal Reserve, Summer Hill

The signs, symbols and graffiti on the ground are all evidence of a territorial battle that is being waged among government authorities, property owners, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Now the stencils themselves are getting in on the act. It is clear that this walker has cracked up and has said something sharp to the bicycle. But a zealous graffiti obliterator has painted over his speech balloon and now we’ll never know what it was he said.

These particular stencils are on a pathway in Cadigal Reserve in Summer Hill. The pathway continues along beside Hawthorne Canal, which eventually runs into an arm of Parramatta River. 

The canal has a history of successive waves of pollution. Originally a stream called Long Cove Creek by early European settlers in Sydney, by the late 1800s it was fouled with house slops and the run-off from factories and slaughterhouses. The stink that it gave off was considered to be a health hazard and eventually it was excavated, re-aligned and lined with concrete in 1895 and renamed Hawthorne Canal.

But over the years the stormwater it collects has still been polluted with leaking sewage and dirt, horse manure, oil, chemicals, plastics, heavy metals and garbage washed off the roads and nearby rubbish dumps. And then, some time in 1990s, the canal was subjected to what some people regard as visual pollution – graffiti.

Hawthorne Canal, Summer Hill

Taggers and graffiti artists continue to express themselves on the walls and under the bridges there. Their marks have spread to the pathway beside the canal. Government authorities and a bush regeneration group have done much to improve the banks of the canal in recent years, so it is understandable that they might want to remove ‘unsightly’ graffiti from the asphalt. They can’t win though. More pavement graffiti has appeared since the last applications of grey paint. But I wish I had been there before they covered up that pedestrian’s outburst.

(Some of the information for this post was obtained from Hawthorne Canal – the history of Long Cove Creek, written by Mark Sabolch and published by the Ashfield & District Historical Society in association with the Inner West Environmental Group in 2006)

Writing on water – thoughts from Silverton (Guest spot)

This week’s post was written by guest spotter Julian Holland, who is a science curator and historian. Julian has been travelling recently in far western New South Wales.

Water – and there is a steady insistent drizzle as I write – water remains the central conundrum of the European experiment in settling Australia.  Water is invisible in most of the Australian landscape most of the time.  But sometimes – at rare intervals – it appears in abundance, even excess.  Much of the drive for Australia’s exploration in the nineteenth century was the search for water – for an inland sea around which agriculture could develop and for navigable rivers which could transport people and produce to markets.

But the explorers’ quest gave way to the reality of Goyder’s Line, the boundary in South Australia beyond which rainfall could not be relied on for agriculture.  The disjunction is marked on the landscape by a sudden shift in the character of vegetation.

Yet the myth of water remains powerful.  In the old school house museum in Silverton, beyond Broken Hill, plastic stencils of different states reminded me of this.  Apart from their boundaries – coast lines and surveyors’ lines – the only features they could guide a child’s pencil along were the courses of rivers and boundaries of lakes, patterning impressionable brains with the idea of water in the landscape. 

But South Australia’s lakes are salt pans.  And perhaps the stencil-joints along the rivers should be read more literally.  Australia’s rivers are often no more than strings of waterholes.

The river that runs through Silverton, Umberumberka Creek, most of the time doesn’t run anywhere.  It is a river of sand.  It is characteristic of Australia’s dry land rivers, visible in the landscape as a ribbon of larger trees, their roots embracing the invisible river below the sand. 

Instead of the ephemeral ripples of wind or insect or falling leaf – or the splash of oars – these rivers of sand carry slightly more enduring inscriptions.

Heading back to Broken Hill, on the outskirts of Silverton, the road bows down in courtesy to a passing creek – a feeder to the Umberumberka – dry too much of the time to warrant a bridge, the possibility of water, or the probability of its absence, marked by lines and depth measures of 0.50 and 1.00 metres.  We inscribe the landscape and the landscape is inscribed in us.  The two landscapes do not always match.

Sous les pavés

It must be one of the most quoted graffiti slogans from the mai 68 student protests in France: Sous les pavés la plage (Beneath the cobblestones the beach). Naturally, when I visited Paris I thought I should find some road works to photograph so that I could make a witty comment about what really lies beneath the cobblestones. But the CPCU (La Compagnie Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain) beat me to it. Notices at worksites and even on their website read: Sous les pavés la plage le chauffage!

CPCU is a public utility that distributes heat (le chauffage) through an underground network for space heating and hot water in Paris. The notices in the street explain that it is currently upgrading the system to make it more environmentally friendly, with apologies for the inconvenience caused by having to take up the road surface.

(And I apologise for the smudges on my photographs caused by a temporarily malfunctioning lens cover)

Rue de la Verrerie, Paris

Carpet runner

There are many artworks to see in the streets of Paris, both classical and contemporary, permanent and temporary. Whether you have set out with guidebook in hand to visit a particular attraction, or whether you are simply wandering, you are bound to encounter artistic surprises even if you don’t ever visit a museum.

It was while I was on a wander that I came upon the beautiful garden of the Palais-Royal. At the southern end of the garden is the palace itself, built in 1629 (now government offices), while the other three sides are bounded by colonnaded buildings added 150 years later. These colonnades –one side open to the garden and the other side originally lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, hair salons and museums – are the forerunners of the 19th century passages or arcades that I wrote about in a previous blog.

I walked down Galerie de Valois on the eastern side, glancing in the windows of its expensive fashion salons and art dealers. Along the length of the tiled floor I noticed what seemed like a carpet-runner with a striped pattern in black and white. It took me a while to realise that I was walking on a temporary art installation. Notices attached to the arcade’s iron railing informed me that the work was Text(e)-Fil(e)s by digital artist Pascal Dombis. On the 252 metre long ribbon Dombis has reproduced thousands of lines of text taken from the works of both notable and obscure authors who have written about the Palais Royal, “for two centuries the most fashionable and visited place in France and even Europe”.

Sometimes I wonder whether people who write on the ground really intend for passers-by to read their messages. Similarly, I wonder whether the inspiration and effort that goes into horizontal artworks might not be wasted. As I loitered in Galerie de Valois I did not see one person look down at the ‘carpet runner’; and even as I moved about taking photographs from this angle or that, no-one looked to see what it was that had caught my attention. But then perhaps Parisians are inured to tourists with digital cameras and are too sophisticated to want to be seen taking any notice of what a tourist is photographing.

Cemetery

On the outskirts of the city proper, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is apparently the most visited cemetery in Paris. Amongst its crowded terraces of new and old graves lie the remains of many notable people. At the office visitors can help themselves to a free map of ‘sépultures parmi les plus demandées’ (some of the most asked-for graves).

Even though there are many examples of pavement graffiti in the gritty streets of the surrounding 20th arrondisement I did not find any in the cemetery itself. Nevertheless there is still much to interest the pavement and/or graffiti aficionado here, not least of which was a heavy duty manhole cover whose cast-iron pattern resembled the cobblestone pathway in which it was set.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave was not hard to find, with its gathering of sightseers paying homage behind a metal crowd barrier and a guard keeping a watchful eye on their behaviour. A nearby tree was covered in graffiti, some of it scraped into the trunk and roots, some of it written on the bark in felt-tipped pen.

Jim Morrison’s grave: the barrier, the guard, the tourists, the tree (the grave itself is out of sight in this picture)

On the other hand, the grave of artist Modigliani was more difficult to find, set back several rows from the intersection of two avenues in a Jewish part of the cemetery. Amedeo Modigliani’s art is characterised by beautiful figures with elongated faces and bodies. He was the archetypal bohemian, his dissolute way of life leading to an early death in 1920 at the age of 35.

At this site there was graffiti written on the gravestone itself, but just small inscriptions, most of them blurred by the weather and indecipherable – a tiny Modigliani-style face scratched into the stone, remnants of red writing, something in blue felt-tipped pen, another in white-out. I find it interesting that Modigliani still apparently engages young people – is it his art or his lifestyle?

The grave of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne

Arcades

The arcades of Paris (les passages couverts) were a shopping sensation in the 19th century and they are still famous, not least because Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished work The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) used a study of the arcades as a way of revealing insights into the realities of urban living.

There were some 150 of these arcades built between 1800 and 1850. In their day they offered a treasure-trove to shoppers in Paris away from the weather and the dirty, unpaved streets. Now there are fewer than 20 left, most of them in run-down condition but still offering a variety of shopping and eating experiences. The pavements – or floors – of the arcades carry the story of their decline (or sometimes their revival, as in the case of the almost-glamorous Galerie Vivienne).

In a stretch of the Passage des Panoramas that I photographed parts of the original paving had been replaced by asphalt, but there were some sections of flagstone and a few shops had remnants of the original coloured tiling – a different pattern for each shop, sometimes with the name of the original business spelt out in tiles. Others had rectangles of synthetic carpet outside their premises.

Manhole covers (3)

Manhole cover in Avenue Bosquet

I have a certain fondness for manhole covers. They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year I was lucky enough to do a tour of the underground Tank Stream in Sydney, and to photograph several manhole covers from below. But now I have gone one better – I have toured the sewers of Paris, or at least a small section of them. Parisians are justifiably proud of their sewer network, their ‘city beneath the city’, designed and built in the mid-1800s. So proud that they have a museum – Le Musée des Égouts –  where, descending beneath the street of Quai d’Orsay, you can walk through tunnels with drinkable and non-drinkable water flowing through pipes beside you, and a river of sewage running along canals beneath you. In the photograph below on the left you can see the tunnel lights reflected in this river.

Bruneseau Gallery of the Paris Sewer Museum

I tried to find a manhole cover that I could photograph from below but the best I could do was the iron stairway leading up to one. I could not stretch my arm far enough beyond the museum barrier to photograph the cover itself.

Afterwards, when I returned to the fresh air of the street, I walked along Avenue Bosquet and, assuming that I paced the distance out correctly, found the manhole cover I had nearly photographed in the chamber below.

Steps beneath manhole in Avenue Bosquet

The beating heart of a city

A short visit to Geneva reminded me that however high its standard of living, however conservative its ruling majority, however picturesque its heritage sites, and however manicured its parks, a city – being a place of people – inevitably has its scruffy side.  Nor does graffiti occur only in the scruffy parts. Graffiti (including pavement graffiti) can undermine the intended mood of any place.

The International Monument to the Reformation is located in one of those manicured parks in the grounds of the University of Geneva. Unveiled in 1909, its statues and inscriptions honour the people and events of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in which Switzerland had a central role. The central group of statues depicts Calvinism’s main proponents, William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox. And there, on the decorative paving at the foot of the wall I found two desperately heartfelt pieces of graffiti painted by Raf, who loves Romane F-K more than anyone.

Foetus

Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie

Sometimes it’s a case of ‘you had to be there’. In several streets where I have walked, mainly in the 1st to 4th arrondissements, there are these large paintings on the pavement of a foetus, sometimes in the womb. They are not stencils but the uniformity of the different renditions and their size suggests that the act of painting them involved a performance calibrated to the artist’s body measurements. I could speculate about what event, cause or band they were advertising, but really I don’t know. I suppose the meaning of this graffiti was understandable at the time when it was done.

The foetus in Rue des Halles is an example of ‘layering’, where one piece of pavement graffiti is laid over another – in this case the ‘official graffiti’ of a pedestrian crossing. The photograph also shows a pair of police on roller blades.

Rue des Halles

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