THE UNDERGROUND IS SHEDDING ITS SKIN
Yes, somehow this is art and yes, somehow this can go away. In fact, it should. Because the
advertising posters documented at „Subway Peelings“ in New York are past their prime –
and that’s what makes them so exciting.
by Lana Debus
It’s going down. About five million people use the New York subway on a daily basis. Day in and day out, they are confronted with packed train cars, pizza rats, constant delays and stuffy underground stations. On top of this are loud people with Bluetooth speakers, shrill squeaking rails, questionable smells and glaring fluorescent lights. Sensory overload: pre-programmed.
The underground seems to be decaying. No one lingers here long enough to really care about these places. But if you give it a chance, you can discover beauty in the creeping decay here, too. It’s perhaps the best way to pass the time when you have to wait for the train anyway.
Elisabeth Skjærvold has done just that. Since 2016, the producer for dance and theater productions has been documenting torn-down billboards in the subway stations of her adopted hometown of New York. She records her discoveries in the project „Subway Peelings.“ What initially started on her private Instagram account quickly became an independent project. By now her Instagram account „subwaypeelings“ features more than 360 of these photographically captured works.
First paste it on, then let it fade and fall apart until the whole thing peels off on its own. The rest is done by bored commuters and billposters with a new load of advertising posters. They scrape off the remains, then paste over it again and again. A poster cycle in four acts.
Skjærvold’s photographs show the cutouts of the torn-off advertising posters. They appear collage-like; masonry and countless layers of paste and colorful scraps of paper blur together. Here and there, sprayed graffiti remnants and scribbles in sharpie also stray into the picture. This mix brings new forms and shapes to light.
In her spare time, Skjærvold also works as a weaver. And just as in her work there, the individual elements on the walls intertwine to form a unity in the peelings.
Sometimes she also feels the need to tear these peelings down further, Skjærvold says, but she holds back on alterations. Her works capture the process of peeling and decay of the posters exactly as she finds them. She only determines the section that the viewer gets to see.
Looking more closely, one is tempted to guess what was once stuck there to the wall in its entirety. What messages were once conveyed here? Did it say something about a marathon event? And what was advertised here back in August/September 2005? The various layers of the posters reflect the history of the city, literal scraps of the past brought into the present. Deciphering them is only possible in fragments, reconstructing them completely impossible. In her posts on Instagram, Skjærvold also always indicates the locations of the peelings where the photo was taken.
„I mainly use that for organization. Also, there are some peelings that have existed for years, get covered up, then reemerge, so I like using those location notes as a marker for myself.”
The appearance of the peelings is shaped by their locations and vice versa.
Completely on their own and over a period of years, the posters transform into everchanging art before the eyes of the train passengers, provided one has a certain eye for it. Street art, or rather public art, is created in real time. From time to time they disappear and emerge like the phoenix from the ashes in a new guise. The entire city is involved in the creation of these works of art, from the minds behind the actual advertising, to the billposters, to the schoolchild who sticks his old chewing gum onto the face of an H&M model. The works always remain alive and continuously embed themselves anew in the cityscape. Elisabeth Skjærvold herself, however, sees her part in this process more as a form of documentation. She feels more connected to the role of the archivist than that of the artist:
„My interest is more in the breadth of the project rather than only featuring the best peelings. I am not as selective or specific as I would be if I considered this my “artwork”.
Nevertheless, her photographs are reminiscent of poster collages by the Affichists (French: affiche = poster) in the late 1940s to 1960s in France. This was a group of artists led by Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains, who also created superimposed advertising posters, torn in various places and thus becoming poster erasures…. In some cases, they also claimed anonymously torn posters on the street. For them, the posters embodied the distorted reality of the postwar period.
Skjærvold, too, suspects the participants behind the peelings are not not so much people who actively protest against the flood of advertising in New York’s cityscape or who want to make art, but rather bored people who mindlessly nibble at billboards. Nevertheless, she believes that advertising still shapes our everyday lives in a certain way:
„I think after living here for a while, you become desensitized to ads, but with enough saturation, they definitely make an imprint on your subconscious.”
Places like Times Square in New York, with their meter-high advertising screens, have become pilgrimage sites for tourism and consumerism. But advertising remains omnipresent in other parts of the metropolis as well. Even when it has been partially torn down – as here in the subway stations – it still has a grip on the cityscape. So it’s only natural that at some point people become a little numb to it. No one notices when new advertising comes and goes, somehow it’s always there. But Subway Peelings manages to bring this fact back to mind. It encourages us to take a closer look at our surroundings. Maybe it’s the distorted reality, the glitch in the matrix, that makes you think.
For all non-New Yorkers, Skjærvold also gives us a small taste of what the New York that looks like that we don’t get to see in travel catalogs. It’s refreshing to see urban phenomena of this kind presented by locals themselves.
But on social media, the whole thing still has a different effect than in real life. Here, it is more quickly perceived as art or a trend. Its reception is tied to the medium in question. Skjærvold’s works could just as well hang in a hip gallery in Manhattan.
„Obviously, the contexts of seeing something on the subway platform, Instagram, or in a gallery are all very different. I am incredibly biased, but I like seeing them “in the wild” on subway platforms. I am very conflicted about whether or not I think they would be interesting in a gallery as that environment can feel less inclusive or accessible than a subway platform. The subway feels more egalitarian and the beauty is that these abstractions are available for everyone.”
You can find Subway Peelings on Elisabeth Skjærvold’s website as well as on Instagram at @subwaypeelings.