Suspense, Hanging and Fear of Falling in Street Art

Antony Gormley, National Portrait Library, London, UK

The whole idea of being suspended, of standing on an edge, and of possibly free falling, is unsettling. It is counterintuitive. We all harbour a powerful and involuntary reflex to save ourselves – we simply just want to stay alive.  

This collection of artwork unnerves us with the images of suspension and the possibility of falling. While the visual narrative hints at disaster it also subtly pokes fun at our entitled expectation of safety and our inalienable faith in perfect balance, happy outcomes and perhaps even a perfect world – that is, right before the unexpected, that proverbial deadly bus, appears.

Ultimately, these conflicted sisters of mayhem and serenity are integral to our existence as we teeter unwittingly along that edge. In this instance, art appreciation is juxtaposed with the desire to push boundaries, revel in suspense and the need to overcome suspension anxiety.

(Left) Antony Gormley, National Portrait Gallery in London; (Right) Rogério Timóteo, Sculpture in the Cidadela, Cascais Portugal

“Art confronts life, allowing it to stop and perhaps change direction.” Antony Gormley

Rogério Timóteo, Sintra, Portugal

It’s worth lingering for a moment beneath the work of Antony Gormley. One of his sculptures hovers above the escalator in the National Portrait Gallery in the Ondaatje Wing in the Main Hall in London. This approximately 648-kilo cast-iron piece was created from a mold of the artist’s own body, and its presence injects the room with a surreal welcome.

The Rogério Timóteo’s sculpture (above right) that hangs in the Cidadela in Cascais Portugal is a complicated read. Its is an intensely graphic, high-impact piece that provokes reactions that range from the pointed discomfort of abject art all the way to the elation of vision-induced meditations.

Suspension themes continue to be the focus of the haunting installation at the 2019 exhibition in Lisbon’s Museu Coleção Berardo. The horror of this image is magnified by the complete indifference of the museum attendees standing directly below these victims. These images are at the apex of suspension anxiety, they are at the “I am not kidding” stage. It is the last step of the final fall.

Above: Museu Coleção Berardo Arte Moderna e Contemporânea

Another “suspension” installation appeared in the first museum devoted to street art Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art, in Berlin.  This photograph was taken from within the museum on the second floor where the central figure, a suspended street artist at work is strategically placed between the artwork of two other artists. This installation hints at the physical conditioning, self-assuredness and devotion to this craft that is required of these individuals, it also highlights the obvious dangers that surround their work.

Shok 1 and others, Urban Nation, Berlin, Germany

The influence of mid-century artist Alexander Calder’s famous explorations of balance and tension can still be seen rippling through the work of contemporary artists. The Deluge by artist Toin Adams is one of those Calder-esque experiences. It hangs in an atrium in the Custard Factory, in the Digbeth neighbourhood of Birmingham (UK).


“The Deluge”, Toin Adams, Birmingham, Uk

Adams’ coil of figures fall earthward in a total state of free-fall. To the viewer it is an overwhelming whirlpool and one can almost sense the presence of the artist watching from the sidelines, waiting for our reaction to the tumult following . . . what? A flash flood? A forced exodus? Or is it a terrifying descent into Hell?  Does it move? Will they fall? Maybe.

Anders Gjennestad, aka Strøk at Oahu, HI

Moving from sculpture to urban wall art, ODEITH, Markus Waidner and Strøk stand out with their masterful use of perspective and optical illusions. They easily convince viewers of the perils of tumbling into a perfectly flat piece of pavement, being attacked by a 3D spider or successfully walking on a perpendicular wall.

Here are more examples from my files that offer up tension, hanging, suspension and well . . . motifs that are just plain stressful . 

Mr. BMX, Montpellier, France

Above: Cement balloon in Lisbon; Suspended figure in Lisbon; Crawling child in the LX Factory in Alcântara Portugal; Railway Bridge in Camden Town, London; Trademark yellow disk mural by Otto Schade, aka “Osch”; Suspended figure by Rogério Timóteo in Caiscas, Portugal; Falling figure in London; Black and white mural in the Brick Lane Area; and Otto Schade in London.

Precision art play, distortion and perspective mixed with emotionally charged images intentionally disorient viewers and upend any cosy feelings of safety. These works may hint at improbably good outcomes, but the visual tension still leaves us with just a faint expectation that some may just not survive the journey.

Nimes, France

Strategically placed inanimate objects can also achieve that same discomfort. They may be illogical, but we can still be convinced of their messages.

Above: Nomadic Community Garden in the Brick Lane area in London; Big Ben in London; and Teresa May in Camden Town. Below: Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon; Lets Adore and Endure Each Other; a green mushroom and a magenta mannequin on the rooftops of the Shoreditch Area.

Esoteric examples of being on the edge could include the two subway cars sitting on the rooftop of the Village Underground building in London. Or how about the balance-defying design of the Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon, a giant green mushroom taking root or a pink mannequin in London considering the inevitable. All are completely illogical.

Since my introduction to this type of work, the question of how artists manifest their themes has quickened. In this case, balance and suspension mixed with other free-fallin’ sensations like innocence, relief, ecstasy, foreboding, anxiety, danger or even possible death have made collecting “freefallins” a slightly more sobering venture than normal, and yet as inspiring as ever.

“Lets adore and endure each other” by Steve “ESPO” Powers, 2010, Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street.

So my hunt continues. More images to capture on railway embankments and deserted streets. Themes to follow up on the tops of buildings. Photorealistic images to find situated in unlikely locations, the drive to identify the murals hidden behind “No Trespassing” signs, all the while balancing that fear of falling with a liberating sensation of flying. 

Texts and photographs 2019 © gail picken. All artwork appearing on this site has been photographed by me unless otherwise indicated.

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