Very few artists working in the realm of street art are able to amplify the subtleties and nuances of everyday urban existence like Alexandre Orion, whose bold stencilled works interact with the environment and the people, coaxing conflicts, raising questions and bringing thoughts to life.
Part of the beauty of Orion’s modus operandi is that his pieces are as bold as they are subtle. This might sound like a contradiction of terms, but picked apart, they’re not exactly. On the one hand, his works are monochromatic, varying in size and composed in such a way as to compliment their placement. At times, they seem to be invisible, figments of the imagination.
At other times, his works seem bold and daring, no longer a part of a dream, but something awake and alive. The subtlety imbues his art with a valuable sense of introspection, entering the consciousness only of those who are wary of their surroundings. Orion acknowledges the possibilities of his environment when he says that, “the city is full of meanings.” It’s a cryptic statement. Are these meanings already there or is the artist himself adding to them?
Both are probably true. Orion’s work heightens these invisible occurrences, epitomised in his ‘breakout’ intervention, 2006’s Ossário, where he spent days working in traffic-heavy tunnels using a cloth to remove dirt from the walls, in essence ‘revealing’ art, rather than creating art under the preconception of a layer added to the environment. It was nothing short of revolutionary.
Depicting a collection of skulls, the tunnel was transformed into a catacomb, using his art to draw attention to the underlying serious statement about both the environment and the inherent dangers of fossil fuels to the natural world and to people's bodies. Brazil, in particular, has a difficult relationship with environmentalism and ecological causes. Being home to the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, which has conversely become a symbol of the complications caused by rapid deforestation, has made the country a case study in poor ecological managment and the dire consequences of it.
Making his claim in an artistic manner, eschewing the typical green tree-hugging voice used by widely distrusted politicians to appeal to the masses, Orion made his point clear as day, the tunnel becoming an early example of viral art in the internet age. He was stopped many times by the police for the work, Brazil's law enforcement struggling to come to terms with the technicalities of his actions. He was just cleaning up, what could they do?
Bizarrely, not long after he had finished the work, government workers came down and cleaned the tunnel. Not the whole thing, which would’ve still been bittersweet, but would've made some sense, but no, they clearned purely the part where he had worked, leaving the thick soot to coat the rest of the tunnel as it always had. If bureaucratic incompetency and institutional disregard for creative expression needed highlighting - this case was it.
His solution was simple. Orion crossed from artist to activist, continuing to work in the rest of the tunnel until the whole thing was cleaned. His actions had a wider effect too. As if to prevent a mass artistic overhaul in dirty tunnels, the municipality took action and cleaned every notable tunnel in the city. His art project evolved into a greater statement about the limits of criticism, creative action and, eventually censorship.
What was branded ‘reverse graffiti’ had become reverse engineering, the artist locating the source of the problem and working backwards towards a solution - from dirty tunnel to clean tunnel by way of artistic intervention. Action has become embodied in Orion’s work. Henceforth, the artist began using his art as a way to elicit a proactive response, waiting with his camera to capture the very moment that people engaged with his pieces.
This is an intriguing process. Unsurprising too, with innovation hardwired into the very way Orion sees the world. By capturing the art as a live event, the artist, as with his tunnel intervention, questions what is true and what is staged. What is cause and what is effect? What is real and what is not? Sure, the art is there and so are the people, but his waiting on the very right moment holds a degree of tableau vivant - a living picture with the whole urban environment a potential stage.
Orion’s work thrives amongst life, judged as a part of it, not apart from it. It’s art, but not the kind you’d see in a traditional gallery, rather art out in the wild, free of its chains, living in a city that’s full of meaning.
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