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22nd April 2006
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Essay: ZAST or ZASD – Poetics of the Open Tag
This is an article about the street artist and graffiti painter ZAST/ZASD, whose work is rooted in the extremely lively and talented graffiti scene in Berlin. ZAST’s tags have let go of the walls and now roam city spaces as fleeting installations. Anne Dyhr reports on the empty tag.

Text: Anne Dyhr
Photo: ZAST and Anne Dyhr

Find more articles about Street Art and graffiti here: Tema: Street art og graffiti
ZAST or ZASD – Poetics of the Open Tag

What is an open sign, or in graffitian, a tag, and what is it not?
I will start by defining what an open tag is not, in an attempt to briefly sketch the field of signs in the city space. One could argue that neither Tesco’s nor B&O fall under the category of the open sign; mental images of supermarket freezers, fresh produce sections, cheap underwear and thousands other more or less necessary household products tumble forward when the word Tesco is mentioned, because Tesco’s is something specific. It is a prefabricated tag loaded with a certain meaning or reference, just like B&O, Tate and the BNP are things that stand for a certain point of view and a specific meaning or experience. We know what we are getting if we buy B&O, take a walk in the Tate or are so frightened that we vote for the BNP.
But what then is the open tag?

The work of ZAST has slowly abandoned the two-dimensional and now moves poetically between city spaces in the form of mobile installations.

The open work
In the essay ‘Poetics of the Open Work’ from 1962 Umberto Eco raises the question of what the open work is. The classical renaissance artists strived to create works that closed in on themselves, so that they thereby could be mediated to the viewer. Here the process of creating is all about facilitating a complete form. The artist tries to create a certain experience of the work and thereby control the viewer’s consciousness and reading of it. The Baroque period is the first movement away from this unambiguous and static presentation of the work of art. The Baroque form is, contrary to for example Renaissance form, intent on spellbinding and mesmerizing the spectator. Baroque art is dynamic, disposing of central perspective so that the work can open up for innumerable angles of perception in regard to it’s singular elements. Eco underlines however, that this is not a question of an intentional quest for, or theorization of, the open or empty work, but rather that we here recognize the first step towards an emancipation of the reading of the works.
It was not until the advent of Symbolism in the second half of the 19th century that an intentional focus is directed towards the open work. Suggestion and ambiguity become that which the artist strives for, aiming to create the possibility of a free reaction and interpretation within the viewer. The primary objective thus becomes a wish to stimulate the viewers’ personal world. Eco uses Kafka’s authorship as a first class example of the new open work. In Kafka’s work, situations are ambiguous. They can be decoded in numerous different ways and are therefore placed in opposition to the sole perspective of the renaissance work.

Random materials found in the cities treasure-chest create fleeting momentary installations.

The open tag
This is where ZAST’s enormous production of tags comes into the picture, although this is not to claim that one cannot not analyze ZAST’s work from several other angles, such as it’s sculptural and performative aspects, but this article will concentrate on the unavoidable emptiness of the tag. I asked ZAST when he was in Aarhus, Denmark, in February, what the letters meant, because there had to be a hidden meaning. It turned out there was none, merely that they sounded nice and they were good to write. Therefore people do not really understand what the sculptural letters mean; they are puzzled and pause for a second.
In a documentary that ZAST screened during his lecture at the Academy of Art in Jutland, a couple of passers-by commented that it was probably an advertisement for a new Kebab shop in the neighbourhood. ZAST’s tags are empty and it is up to the viewer to fill them with some form of meaning or story. This freedom can perhaps seem daunting, confusing or provocative. What does he want? What is the message? Throughout the universe of the city most signs have some form of meaning, whether they be commercial or council postings, but presented with the graffiti tag we stand in front of the empty sign, in front of a signature, that does not mean anything. I think that it is this emptiness that could be one of the reasons that graffiti is so negatively thought of. It is provoking that someone express themselves without any certain ulterior motive, that someone occupies space without a product or meaning to sell. But it is precisely this characteristic, which makes ZAST’s work so irresistible. ZAST’s tag(s) incorporates no specific message but creates instead a space where you and I can fantasize and wonder.

As mobiles move in the wind, ZAST moves through the urban landscape.

In ZAST's work the signature has moved away from the wall and become constructions in the city made from garbage such as Styrofoam and wood. In certain instances these constructions are only legible from specific angles, and in others ZAST has sought to camouflage the tag by copying the structure of the existing background. The empty signature is on a reconnaissance in the city and can from time to time be glimpsed in the lakes of a park, hanging as mobiles from the roofs of train stations, in the garbage of shrubberies or held in the grip of an ice sheet, ready to float off somewhere when winter loosens its hold.
ZAST is fleeting and without a direct proposition. Like a breath of fresh air or a sound that cannot be held or deciphered, it is similarly impossible to enthral ZAST.
ZAST is poetry on the street scene, the tag moves poetically around itself, at once visible one place then somewhere else. A clear analogy to the mobiles of the early 1960’s experimental art scenes.

After having talked to ZAST, he hands me a series of articles and other data that has been written about him, which I chuck in my bag, only to retrieve it a month later and start leafing through it. They are articles from all over the place, but what puzzles me is that he is sometimes referred to as ZAST and other times ZASD. I therefore send him an email just to be sure, which of the names is the real one. He replies that this depends; sometimes it is ZAST and other times ZASD…

Traces of ZAST in Aarhus.

A thought on graffiti
Today it is possible to formulate two directions within graffiti; the empty/open tag and a critical/debate-orientated text.
Of these two possibilities, ZAST belongs to the category of the empty or open tag that does not directly represent a political stance or is in any other way socially inclined or critical. The other direction is much less empty; it’s actually stuffed with critique and debate about our current society’s development and course. An example of this area is the illustrations shown below, which depict how billboard ads have been applied with a critical re-working: A re-working that, contrary to ZAST’s insistence on the empty tag, almost implode under the direct application of opinion.
Graffiti is therefore not just graffiti but instead a network of several different modus operandi, concepts, wishes and materials. A point worth bearing in mind when the (graffiti) activists of the city are up for discussion.

Here the empty tag has been replaced with a direct message.

Related articles:
Snapshot: NU! [:freaksgallery:] i Borggade
Snapshot: Freaked galleri på Rådhuspladsen i Århus
Reportage: Überkunst, et helt unikt netværksgalleri
Anmeldelse: Blind for øjnene (blind-folded)
Snapshot: LOOK/KOOL
Snapshot: Så kom ZAST til byen (And then ZAST came to town)
Snapshot: Fragment fra en dannelsesrejse (fragments of a formative journey)
Interview: Jan Danebod
Interview: Graffitimaleren KigSet

Find more articles about Street Art and graffiti here: Tema: Street art og graffiti
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