First published on 4 Nov 2014. Updated on 6 Nov 2014.
If Wikipedia wasn’t always at hand, it’d be difficult to guess that graffiti artist Futura, aka Leonard McGurr, is 58 years old. He is one of those people – whether by virtue of their occupation, lifestyle, or simply reputation – who inhabits their own space and continuum separate from the rest of us. Having spearheaded graffiti’s transition from street art to gallery art, and pioneered many unique new spray paint techniques and visual styles, Futura is still striving to push himself and his work to the next level.
McGurr arrived in Shanghai at the end of October and from the time he arrived he has been busy creating new pieces on the floor of Magda Danysz Gallery up in Yangpu district. Travelling to the gallery on a Saturday afternoon, we feel the layers of development peeling away from the city, until we are dropped on a dirty, bustling, nondescript street filled with an assortment of small businesses, that could have been lifted from any indeterminate 4th tier Chinese city. The area is ripe with the anticipation of development, which will inevitably come.
MD Gallery, which serves as a clean, modern escape from the chaotic road which it sits off, could be one of the first signifiers of the area’s impending gentrification. Inside the dazzlingly white space, we find Futura: a tall, lean figure of a man who greets us in blue overalls plastered in the remnants of a few day’s hard work on the gallery floor. Warm and welcoming, he lights up a cigarette as we sit down and begin to chat.
How far do you and China go back?
When I was in the US Navy in 1975 I was in Hong Kong [points to right hand] and this is my name in Chinese, and I don’t even know why I happened to do that, peer pressure maybe, some of the other fellas were like, ‘Yo we’re getting tattoos you gotta get one’. That was my first real connection [to China].
How many times have you been to Shanghai?
This is like the fifth time in Shanghai, you know, the last time was when I did a project with Beats by Dre and that was at the Apple store there on Nanjing Road, they had an Apple in-store event. I was on tour doing that with Beats and Apple in Asia, in Europe and in America and I came to Shanghai. I think that was in 2012.
Can you remember the first time you came to Shanghai?
2002. I remember my first impression coming from the airport and I was like ‘Wow the architecture here is crazy!’ then I heard, someone was telling me, they even have like zoning on it and there’s like mad buildings going up, but at the same time there was also money coming out, so there were buildings that were not quite finished and it looked kinda weird. I came back in 2004 on a Nike-related event and yeah, we were staying in a weird part of town so I didn’t really get to see much, and then I was here in the Olympic year, in 2008. I seem to come back every couple of years.
Is there anything on your must-do list every time you come back?
You know just whatever; photograph the (Oriental) Pearl. Yeah I mean, each time I meet more people, some of my friends have been affiliated with that store – we did a thing with them yesterday – Juice
, those guys…
Edison, yeah and Kevin and those guys, I’ve known all them since when they grand-launched all that you know, years back. But mostly you know how it is; you come out here you’re mostly doing something, it’s never quite like a personal trip where you like ‘Hey man I went to such-and-such a region and I saw this and that’, you know it tends to be like your time is a little bit more locked-up. Specifically being out here [at Magda Danysz Gallery] we’ve been hanging out here, we’ve been eating lunch locally and this area’s really cool in that at least it’s not all done up and it’s a bit old. So that’s cool, to get a glimpse of that, because you get the sense that that’s all gonna be removed eventually anyway. But it’s mostly been me worrying about the show and being in [MD Gallery]. As I’m in here, I could be anywhere on earth. I mean yes: I look outside and I see Chinese people, but the for the most part my concentration is on ‘Can we put the show together?’
What about the show is different to previous shows?
Nothing in the sense that it’s my art work. It kinda always is what it is, but there are a couple of pieces here that are new: the vertical lines – I’ve never done that before. There are a lot of things here that are upside down, I’ve signed some pieces upside down and that’s just like a private joke, because growing up as a kid, watching Bugs Bunny, when he would jump into his hole sometimes he’d pop out in China, because the principle was he went right through the earth and came out on the other side. I’m on the other side of the earth, and I’ve been here tons of times but like I said I’ve never done an exhibition of my work per se. There are pieces in here that have very traditional, atomic [forms], you know the kind of thing people have seen a lot from other things I’ve done. But then like I say I’m always hoping to do something new – I have some of my Instagram photography here which is a big thing in terms of how I’m using social media now. [My Instagram] is very eclectic in its content; there’s me riding my bike, doing a lot of things, there’s my girlfriend… you know all kinds of things and what I would call pop-culture imagery. There’s a lot of interactivity there. So we’re showing some elements of that.
How was the creation process in the gallery?
Because of the spontaneity and the approach I have to painting I mean, I walked in here and all the paint was here, all the materials were here – the paint, the canvasses – everything was here. It was like ‘Wow’. It’s a very big space and a nice space, no doubt. But I was still like ‘Wow – what am I going to do in here?’ And I didn’t know, I never know. It’s not like ‘Oh man I’ve got sketches and…’ No; I have no idea. It’s sort of like, even when I was an outlaw artist in the street you know, I would say ‘Oh shit, OK well we’re going to paint that train, that wall, that building, or whatever, that thing’. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just knew I had a couple of reds, two greens, I had an orange, a black and that’s it – you just go to work. The nature of how I do my thing – it’s very hard to describe because I don’t know, you know what I mean? I’m just as surprised as anyone else.
Is it the case that everything you start, you finish, and then present?
No not always, ‘cos we have four pieces they tried to ship over from the Paris show and I was like I don’t wanna show the work we’ve already done. As it worked out, the Instagram photos helped to fill some of the space. I don’t like the classic French salon with a thousand paintings on the wall. I like three paintings on the wall, you know what I mean? I’m super excited about this [exhibition], because technically I did some new stuff, and aside from that it’s just a great space. There’s Nico, Lupe…you know, Lupe Fiasco as my assistant?! That’s kinda crazy! I didn’t know that was coming. And yeah, it’s been a great experience and I hope it’s well-received.
The audience here doesn’t know you so well – how do you feel about that?
Well, we’re supported by Converse which you can say is local, so you would hope they have the wherewithal to reach their audience. Working with them at least we know we can grab their following to come over the next few weeks. There’s nothing I’m expecting other than what I can control; my own performance. I think the Futura fans who do know me, I don’t know if they’ll gravitate to whatever, but I certainly feel they have a nice show to look at.
In Times out Shanghai
Une expérience collaborative Shanghaienne
BYOB: Bring Your Own Beamer
Bring Your Own Beamer is a collaborative creative art event that’s taken place in cities across the world and is set to light up Shanghai’s 1933 complex.
The idea, straight from the organisers’ collective mouth, is for ‘a series of one-night international exhibitions where artists bring their own beamers (projectors) and explore the medium of projection by creating a collaborative happening of moving light, sound, installation and performance.‘
Earlier this summer, BYOB lit up Beijing’s hutongs and for Shanghai, ‘artists are encouraged to explore [a] BEGIN / END / LOOP theme, in hopes of engaging in the past, present and future inevitable cycles of life, while also referencing the video/film and sound mediums they will be experimenting with.’
Here’s the full list of participating artists:
B6 art collective
Benjamin Bacon + Vivian Xu
Bethany Lynn Jesseph
Chase Walker Bray
Chen Xiaoyi 陈孝毅
Chen Zou 绉晨
The Eleven Collective
Katy Roseland, Harrison Thane & Rosalia Ramos
Lily Jue Sheng + Antonia Kuo
Liu Tanxu 刘天绪
Michelle Proksell 媚潇 / Muted Rainbow
Nan Hao 郝楠
Peng Tian 田鹏, Hu Xiaobo 胡晓波 & Ink
Pomegranate Performance Project
Sandy Ding 丁昕
Sean Dickinson & Alan Smith
Stop Zhang 张亭
Swimful Buterfly & Courtney Mackedanz
Wang Xin 王欣
Ying Miao 苗颖