By Sophie Rose

Project 5 (now in its fourth year, or ‘volume four’) is a public art event running over two weeks (9-22 March), designed to showcase established and emerging talented Australian contemporary street and stencil artists, and to raise proceeds for the Information and Cultural Exchange organisation. The entire event includes live art demonstrations, artist talks, a charity auction event (of the finished art from the live demonstrations), and a retrospective gallery exhibition of previous Project 5 work. The Project is a collaboration between Ambush Art Gallery, The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, Bay East Auctions, four selected artists, and the Information and Cultural Exchange organisation. This year, the event brought cutting-edge artworks created by Australian street artists E.L.K, Reka, Vexta and HAHA to the historical Rocks precinct.What is street art?

Street art is a relatively young contemporary art movement that involves the creation of visual art in public spaces, often without approval from the site owner. It is differentiated from traditional ‘graffiti’ not only by its focus on aesthetic and meaning, creating a dialogue between the viewer and their surroundings, but also by its range of encompassed art forms, including spray and stencil work, painted artwork, murals, posters, (paper) paste-ups and stickers. Pioneering artists worldwide have transformed the novelty of “graffiti” into a new genre which is becoming increasingly popular and acknowledged across the art world as one concerned with innovation, individuality, and the representation of powerful social and political messages.

In Australia, the movement grew from a small number of experimental artists and crews operating in the late 1970s, and since a surge in the mid 1990s, has evolved into what is now the diverse, experimental and increasingly populated contemporary street and urban art scene.

Street art is, by its early definitions, ephemeral; a mural, stencil or paste-up which may adorn city walls for anywhere from a day to months, depending on location, visibility, materials, and council laws. With its rise in popularity, visibility, and global recognition, street art is moving into a new era where the ephemeral work becomes collectible. Many of the artists work on commission for public or private murals and paintings, and produce studio versions of their art (originals, or limited edition stencils and prints).

Project 5 manages to combine these two aspects of street art into an easily accessible platform that raises interest and awareness towards the genre and also the talents of the individual artists. Its live art sessions, freely open to the public, provide audiences a behind-the-scenes-style view of the artists’ process and techniques, normally be confined to studio work or covertly operated mid-night spray and paste-up sessions. Still, the end result is a studio-quality canvas work, collectible and permanent.

From a curatorial perspective, Project 5 essentially provides an annual snapshot of the current art making practice and trends of contemporary Australian street art scene. The selection of four different (well-known and recognised) artists each year captures the ever-evolving shift in technique, artistic inspiration and talent, intentionally pulling together a group comprised of members with diverse art making practices.

The artists of 2012 were E.L.K (Luke Cornish), Reka (James Reka), Vexta (Yvette Bacinova), and HAHA (Regan Tamanui).

Reka, of Melbourne’s Everfresh crew, is a self-taught artist active amongst the pioneers of Melbourne’s street art scene since 2002. His influences are grounded in pop culture, cartoons and illustration, and over the years Reka has transformed these inspirations into his instantly recognisable surrealist style paintings and murals featuring bold colours and line work. Reka’s art can be found on the streets and in contemporary galleries worldwide, and was recently acquisitioned by the National Gallery of Australia.

E.L.K is arguably Australia’s premier stencil artist, having rapidly risen to nationwide fame and recognition since humble beginnings in 2007. His work is renowned for its technical skill, involving up to 90 layers of hand-cut acetate stencils and even more layers of spray painting in the creation of a single piece. E.L.K has pioneered the stencilling genre in Australia and broken new grounds into an era of hyper-realism, particularly through his portraiture works; his portrait work “Father Bob” a finalist in the Archibald Prize, 2012.

Vexta has been creating her unique brand of psychedelic, neon street art since 2003, working between her hometown of Sydney and her current residence in Melbourne. Vexta’s art, primarily stencil and paste-up work, finds influence in cultural and visual debris and the notion of urban mythologies, also incorporating found objects, bones, wood and feather materials.

HAHA is a Melbourne-based stencil artist, most widely recognised for his iconic images of Ned Kelly scattered throughout Australian streets and galleries. His work encompasses a vast range of subject matter but is primarily concerned with the power of mass media and pop-culture within Australia, which is evident in his style: bright, bold pop-art stencils and murals. Self-taught, HAHA experiments with layering stencils and the use of rollers and spray paint to create intricate his unique pop-art style imagery.

Together, these artists and their wildly original and differing styles are a small but quality representation of the diversity of contemporary Australian street art, a fantastic introduction to those as yet unfamiliar with the scene.

The purpose of Project 5 is threefold: to promote contemporary Australian street art, its key artists, and their supporters (Galleries and sponsors), to raise funds for the arts-based charity organisation ICE (Information and Cultural Exchange), and to increase the profile of the Rocks as an arts area (particularly during Art Month Sydney). Project 5 addressed these goals through four key events held over the two-week period.

The live art events held over the initial three days 9th-11th March, in the Rocks Square, were the key attractions for the public audience. The live art sessions ran from 10am-3pm each day, in addition to an opening evening event on the 9th, with free public access to come and go as desired, effectively serving as an ‘open air artists studio’. Four large, blank canvases were arranged in the centre of the square, and over the course of the sessions, the artists brought these to life with each of their unique creations – HAHA and E.L.K working side by side with stencils and spray paint, opposite Reka and Vexta who focused on painted stencil art and brushwork. The entirety of the artwork was created over these three public sessions, with the finished pieces to be held for the charity auction event on the 22nd March.

Although there was overlap in general methodology, each artist’s technique and individual style was vastly different. HAHA worked quickly, rolling on bright yellow for the base of each individual portrait of the late ‘Carmen’ Kiwi (drag queen) and capturing her charismatic vibrancy with each upbeat yet precise movement and coating of orange-hued spray paint; alongside, E.L.K maintained a much more visibly thoughtful and cautious approach, headphones in and concentrating on the minute detail and precision placement required for each of some fifty hand-cut stencil masks, to produce a subtle yet intense photorealistic work which perfectly captures the urgency and desire behind a moment of intimacy. Meanwhile, Reka and Vexta worked opposite, both with steady and cautious brushwork; Reka building layer upon layer of brushstrokes, mostly freehand but with stencil-mask precision, to produce an intricate surrealist urban portrait, its subject hovering somewhere between robotic and human, in industrial browns, dirty whites and a blazing crimson red. Vexta exercised similar precision whilst creating one of her signature neon skull compositions, first painting the comic-realism style skull which ends up looking surprisingly gentle and organic in muted tones, juxtaposed with neon shards and several tiny, bright hummingbirds spewing forth from its jaw.

The artworks themselves are enough to draw a crowd, but patrons linger, entranced by the opportunity to watch these artists doing what they do best. Furthermore, the artists are happy to chat when they step away from the canvas for a break, affirming their down-to-earth personas as artists who bridge the gap between contemporary and accessible art.

Meanwhile, from 9th-22nd March, a retrospective exhibition of previous works from the Project 5 series was held in the old Bank Building, 47 George St, the Rocks. The exhibition was not heavily promoted, with only a few flyers placed at the side of the live art event, and the pop-up gallery space was potentially difficult to find unless actively sought out by keen audience members or those already in the know. This is unfortunate, as the works (in fact, sleek canvas prints of the originals) were a dynamic and vibrant representation of the top Australian street artists involved in the project from 2009-2011.  Artists on display included Ben Frost, Shannon Crees, Phibs, Beastman, Ears, Deb, Anthony Lister, Kid Zoom, Ghostpatrol, with a standout work by James Jirat Patradoon. Although the display space was very limited, the curation could have utilised this better in a few simple ways – more information about each particular work would be welcome, either on the artwork plaque or within the promotional flyers for Project 5 and Ambush Gallery left at the side of the room.

The small gallery space in the Bank Building was also a base for the artist talk and discussion panel, Monday 12th March 11am-12pm. In my experience, artist talks are never the most popular element of an event and unfortunately at this year’s project 5, this seemed to only be compounded by its lack of promotion, difficult to find and space-restricted location, and inconvenient timing. Although still successful in its purpose, what was promoted as a fantastic opportunity for open discussion with the artists could have been eve more so, but only with better organisation and execution. However, the artists were also (of their own choice) open to questions and brief discussion during the live art sessions, so any members of the general public who were truly keen for discussion were presented with ample opportunity earlier in the program.

Finally, the private charity auction to raise proceeds for ICE was held on Thursday 22nd March, at the Cleland Bond Store, the Rocks. ICE (Information and Cultural Exchange) is a Sydney-based organisation that provides support and resources to disadvantaged youth and other minority social groups with opportunities through the arts and creative industries, in the Greater Western Sydney area. Over the first three events, Project 5 has raised $40,000 for the organisation, with this year’s effort adding another $12,800 to the total.

The charity event was invitation only, with VIP invite available on request; in effect, this restricted the crowd to serious buyers, appreciators and collectors from the street and contemporary art community, and commercial gallery representatives, but also allowed for a large number of media, colleagues and friends of the artists. It could be argued that this format somewhat restricted the visibility of the finished works to a commercial atmosphere, which seems to oppose the underlying principles of the event and of the genre of street art itself (to make art accessible to the whole community); however, this argument would then delve into the deeper controversy under current contention: does the commodification of street art change its value, and is it still really street art?

In terms of this event, the answer is irrelevant; the collaboration between government organisations, Ambush Gallery and the artists meant that once again, Project 5 was successful in its primary goals, after the completion of Reka, Vexta, HAHA and E.L.K’s four fresh artworks and a rewarding charity auction for ICE.

Although the new location for the Project at the Rocks this year and its reliance on walk-through interest as a “pop up” event may not have been ideal, attracting lower crowds than previous years at Cockle Bay Wharf, the event (particularly the live art events) provided a wonderful opportunity for both newcomers and enthusiasts to engage with some of the top artists in Australia’s contemporary street art scene today. Project 5, much like the genre of street art itself in Australia, is just finding its ground with Sydney audiences, but managing to achieve significant improvements (particularly growth in fundraising) each year. With the amount of raw talent circulating the Australian street art scene, the 2013 line-up of artists and events will definitely be something to look forward to.

References and further reading

Project 5 official website

Information & Cultural Exchange, Project 5 Volume 4

Ambush Gallery, Project 5 Volume 4

Bay East Auctions, Project 5 charity auction

Regan Tamanui (HAHA) official website

Vexta official website

Luke Cornish (E.L.K) official website

James Reka (Reka) official website