By Pierre L'Etude
“Urban Clouds is both art and performance where existing urban graffiti-marked landscapes are evolved into environments designed to raise the consciousness of the communities inhabiting these spaces”
“Internationally renowned artist, Pierre L’etude, brings his “Urban Cloud” series to Austin, Texas. Having made his artistic mark on major urban landscapes around the World, central Texas is now being gifted with his acclaimed artistry.”
Pierre L’etude was born in 1953 in Villeneuve-les-Maguelone such south of Montpellier, France along the northern Mediterranean coast. The youngest of 16 children, he grew up lavished in the love of his over-sized family. His parents were organizers of a communist free-love and nudist colony. Accordingly, Pierre’s youth was spent in decadence amongst the family vineyards. Every holiday, his father would load the family on the train to Paris, where they would spend weeks wandering the halls of the Louvre. It was there that Pierre L’etude became a self-taught expert in art history and technique. In 1968, when he applied for admission to the fine arts program of Universite’ Paris Quest Paris X, the professors administering his oral application session – immediately advanced him past the freshman basics and started his programming in select upper division courses. He graduated in only two years – becoming the youngest graduate of the University in 1970. Thereafter, Pierre attended graduate school in Berlin at the acclaimed Universitate der Kunste Berlin (Berlin University of the Arts). In graduate school, he studied under Thomas Gawlitta - and under his tutelage in 1971 created his first major public piece. Located outside of the Reichstag and titled “Our Goal”, the piece involved the placement of 5 port-a-potty portable toilets – entirely covered by burnished gold leaf. Each gold-covered structure was placed on a wooden packing crate. A fork-life operator spent the day – continuously moving the gold-covered toilets from location to location around the Reichstag. This first art performance catapulted Pierre L’etude to fame. The piece opened to unanimous rave reviews – and it was credited with creating a rebirth of the previously mordant Berlin dada and bohemian arts community. It was considered a break from post-WWII iconography and the announcement of a new post-war modernism that sought to divorce itself from war-time sentiment.
After the successfully staging of “Our Goal” commissions began pouring in from around the world. Pierre L’etude’s next a major piece was in London. Here, in 1972 he created his iconic “Toll”. This piece was sited on the Tower Bridge, where Pierre dangled 5,000 authentic broadswords from underneath the bridge, creating a solid curtain of swords aiming down to the Thymes River below. Shockingly, each sword was hung solely by a piece of cotton string Upon its installation, public outrage was immediate. Ferrymen on the river barges staged an immediate strike in protest – refusing to navigate underneath the bridge. The City of London’s Art Commission’s Board, which had authorized and permitted the piece, had not realized that actual swords would be used. The Commission had been under its own mistaken belief that Pierre would use cardboard cutouts affixed with wire. Upon learning that actual swords were being used and were only precariously affixed, The Art Commission and the London Constable demanded the immediate removal of the piece as the ferrymen rioted and boat-traffic on the Thymes was brought to a complete halt. However, Pierre L’etude was able to show the terms of the contract with the City of London Commission containing a “non-interference” clause that prohibited the removal of any piece of approved art based upon public objection. Pierre argued that the ferrymen’s protest was nothing more than a public objection – upon which basis the City was contractually prohibited from removing the art. Pierre argued that art is worth dying for – and the Ferrymen’s refusal to risk their lives by boating underneath the bridge – was a rejection of the price they would be willing to pay for art. A huge debate raged in the City – with some in support of Pierre L’etude and others in support of the ferrymen and boat traffickers. In support of L’etude’s art, some of his supporters began jumping off the bridge – then swimming underneath the dangling swords as a protest demonstration of support. Public outrage mounted when one of the broadswords actually broke loose and plunged into the river. Shortly thereafter, a solution was achieved when the Arts Commission realized they had an option to purchase the artwork for the price of five million pounds. Since the Commission never imagined that it would purchase the piece – it had been wholly unconcerned about the purchase option price and had not revised the five million pound purchase price. However, the Commission saw no solution other than purchasing “Toll” in order to remove it The Commission exercised its option and took ownership of the piece. Once payment was made and title transferred, as owners of the artwork, the Commission immediately took it down. To recoup its costs, the Commission partially reinstalled the artwork for ticketed viewing at the British Museum where about half of the swords were suspended in the Museum courtyard, but this time using heavy tinsel cables with individuals prohibited from walking underneath the swords. Pierre L’etude dismissed this recreation as a “bastardization” and explained that, as recreated, the new artwork totally missed the point of his original piece. However, this event resulted in Pierre L’etude being made a multi-millionaire from his art at only the age of nineteen. To this day, variations of “Toll” continue to be mounted in different art institutes and museums around London.
After, Toll, Pierre L’etude’s reputation was complete. He has spent the subsequent fifty years installing hundreds of pieces of art in international art festivals, museums, and private galleries and exhibitions around the world. His is the featured art in most of the new art spaces being created in Dubai. His art is prominently featured in the new Beijing Daxing Airport. Indeed, its architects have stated that the airport is designed around his artwork and not the other way around. He is professor emeritus and currently based out of the E’cole Nationale Superieure des Beauz-Arts School of Fine Arts in Paris France.
In his later years, Pierre L’etude’s work has returned to its guerilla roots. For the past five years he has undertaken his “Urban Clouds” project. Although he paints his “Urban Clouds” in cities around the world – he considers them all part of a singular art piece that stretches around the globe – making “Urban Clouds” the largest piece of art ever created – encompassing the entire globe. Pierre L’etude was even allowed to attach a small “Urban Cloud” on a support strut of the James Hubbell Space Telescope. Once it is launched, Pierre L’etudes' “Urban Cloud” artwork will then extend not only around the globe – but also out into the far reaches of space.
Urban Clouds – A History
Urban clouds had its initial conception in Cairo, Egypt. In 2016, Pierre L’etude had been invited to give a series of lectures at the Contemporary Image Collective of Cairo. While there, several students complained about graffiti-tagging that was overrunning several neighborhoods adjacent to the University. The students decried the tagging as “anti-art” as it frequently resulted in the vandalism of murals and other public-art pieces. Pierre L’etude undertook to address both the “problem’ and to provide the students a lesson in how art, environment, and politics intersect. Pierre hired local artisans to buff, or paint over, the graffiti tagging. But rather than simply broad-brush the tagging with swaths of monochromatic grey (as is done traditionally), Pierre L’etude trained the workman to paint “cloud-like” forms. These forms, utilized multiple-tones of white and blue-grey to replicate the colors and imagery of cumulus clouds. Soon the “Urban Clouds” began appearing all around the Cairo urban-scape; painted only where graffiti-tagging had existed previously. The brilliance of this conceit was that as the “clouds” themselves were tagged – additional clouds covered the new tagging – which only added to and grew the clouds already there. Thus – was born a mural artwork form that could not be destroyed! It simply grew and evolved as the taggers and cloud-creators participated in an artistic dance across the urban landscape.
With his financial resources he was able to overwhelm the urban street-taggers and soon an army of painters hired by Pierre L’etude had absolved Cairo of all graffiti. Instead, the walls and public spaces of the city were gently festooned with the images of rolling clouds. Pierre L’etude’s Urban Clouds was a hit with the city’s educated population, literary society, developers ,and business owners. Several neighborhoods of the city, which had earned bad reputations and had previously been shunned by development dollars were rediscovered. An urban renaissance began to take hold. Unfortunately, a political counter-movement developed that began to take hold amongst fundamentalist factions decrying Pierre L’etude’s Urban Clouds as a foreignist plot and as an imposition of secular-intellectualism over religious ideas. Ultimately, riots occurred resulting in all of the Urban Clouds being painted over. Upon issuance of multiple fatawas by local clerics – the Urban Cloud project in Cairo was brought to a halt. However, to this day Urban Clouds still occasionally appear on Cairo back-alleys as ongoing homages to Pierre L’etude’s vision.
Ultimately, Pierre L’etude began expanding his “Urban Clouds” project around the globe. After Cairo, “Urban Cloud” installations soon appeared in Paris, London, Venice, Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney, and Cape Town, South Africa. It became Pierre L’etude’s obsession to string together his Urban Clouds paintings into a singular installation intended to encompass the globe. This project continues to be realized. More than 100 cities around the world now have Urban Clouds installations upon their city landscapes.
One of the best explanations of Pierre L’etude’s Urban Clouds vision was printed in an interview published in the Berlin art magazine Texte Zur Kunst. When asked to expound on his vision for Urban Clouds, Pierre L’etude explained:
“Urban Clouds is art as a process of transformation. Urban Clouds follows specific rules. A cloud is only placed over an existing grafitti-tag. The grafitti-tag is a form of personal advertising commerce. The tagger is placing their brand-emblem onto the urban landscape – no different than a McDonald’s sign or Nike swish. An Urban Cloud reclaims the public space from the advertiser who has usurped it for their own personal-identity commerce – and gifts the space back to the public in the form of a cloud. A cloud upon which the viewer can now project their own imagery or idea – and which allows the viewer to mentally reclaim the space as their own. It is art as transformation, art as Darwinian competition, art intersecting the public and private, street-art and high-art combined. It is an art of poverty and an art of wealth. It lends itself to limitless interpretation and analysis. It is the high art of the Renessiance - combined with the asthetic of Warhol. It is everything and nothing. It is the culmination of my life’s project.”
The following review was published in Aesthetica Magazine in 2018 and is hereby republished with permission:
“Pierre L’etude’s Urban Clouds – Fine Art in the Gutters”
Popping up on the garden walls and ash-can alleys of some of London’s toniest neighborhoods readers can find small cloud-like forms painted randomly upon the city landscape. These puffy pieces are painted in simple whites and greys and loosely imitate the clouds floating overhead. What is striking when looking down an alley where the Urban Clouds float – is the absence of any grafitti-tagging. It is immediately noticeable and striking. Until one realizes that the clouds themselves are the grafitti! They are the uber-grafitti, covering over and consuming any tagging that previously existed in these spaces. What is also remarkable is the feeling imposed onto the viewer upon viewing a street-scape lightly kissed with these cloud-like forms painted on the walls, electrical poles, and meter boxes. Rather than a feeling of despondency when looking at the deitritus of the urban jungle – one feels oddly lifted – as though entering a Willy Wonka wonderland where all things might be possible. The Urban Clouds create softness where hardnest existed before. For the viewer, rather than the sharp knives of graffiti-tagging stabbing the eyes and psyche, one can look upon free floating cloud-like forms, and like a child seeing animals in the shapes of the clouds in the sky, one can project their own thoughts and ideas onto the free spaces the clouds have freed up. This is Pierre L’etude’s precise point. He feels that by “buffing” street graffiti-tagging with his Urban Clouds, he is freeing the urban landscape from the tyranny of the tagger’s “advertisement” and replacing it with a neutral space upon which we can invest our own dreams.
Pierre L’etude’s “Urban Clouds” project is found not only in London, but also in major urban capitols stretching around the globe. It is part of his conception to create a piece of performance and graphic artwork that is truly global in scale. He does not define his artwork as consisting of distinct pieces – but each of his Urban Clouds is simply one brush stroke on a larger canvas that is the size of the entire world in scale.
Part of what makes his artwork fascinating is that it is probably the only form of mural-artwork that is self-healing and perpetual. Whenever one of his Urban Cloud pieces gets tagged – more cloud-like paint is applied over the tag – simply growing and evolving the original cloud-form, much like clouds in the sky slowly shape-shift from one for to the next in the sky. Since there is no one “right” way for an Urban Cloud to look – its original form cannot be destroyed just merely reshaped, much like the wind continuously reshaping real clouds in the sky overhead.
Pierre L’etude largely lets the street taggers identify where his art is located. He follows the street-tagger – and where they tag, he believes that he is given license to paint and install an Urban Cloud. Most property owners, whose property has been tagged, prefer the Urban Cloud form over what was previously a vandalizing tag. In response to taggers or others who accuse Pierre L’etude of destroying their own art, he simply shrugs his shoulders: “No one who tags has any expectation of permanency for their work.” He continues; “The tagger tags as an act of opposition. As a statement of political revolution. My Urban Clouds are a statement of opposition. They are a statement of political revolution. The tagger should see me as kin – and be honored that their tag formed the seed from which my art sprouts.” Obviously, statements of such egotistic etude rankle many in the art community. But someone of Pierre L’etude’s stature dares anyone to defy his own analysis of his work.
There are already semester-long classes at various European art institutes that focus on the art theories that Urban Clouds has engendered. These classes are taught as much as philosophy and political science classes rather than simply applying convential art theory. Pieces of walls and light poles upon which his Urban Clouds were painted have started to make their appearance in private galleries and public art museums. One recent fragment of a stucco garden-wall covered by one of his Urban Clouds sold at auction for just over a hundred thousand pounds. The value of this art-work, if sustained, might soon compel homeowners to tear down their alley walls and place them for sale should they be fortunate enough to have a Pierre L’etude Urban Cloud painted on them. Your children’s inheritence might soon be appearing on the brick drain above your gutter. Nothing would please Pierre L’etude more.