Banksy versus Bristol Museum: a review
media and culture |
Tuesday July 28, 2009 22:45 by Will Brown will485 at btinternet dot com 3 Fitzroy St, Totterdown
Hundreds of thousands flock to see Easton graffiti star's show at Bristol Museum. What does it mean?
Banksy versus Bristol Museum
‘Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is proud to present a unique collaboration between the city’s foremost cultural institution and one of the regions most overrated artists’.
That’s what it says on the guide handed out by hard pressed museum staff to the 4,000+ visitors a day who queue patiently for an hour to get in. The show runs for 10 weeks until the end of August. Claire, the Museum PR officer thinks well over 350,000 will have visited by the end.
The museum is a venerable Edwardian pile founded by WD&HO Wills tobacco money. Its still generously endowed by the secretive and powerful Society of Merchant Venturers – the long standing committee of the cities rich and powerful. Until 10 years ago the Museum had no reference to the slave trade – foundation of Bristol prosperity – until public outcry insisted.
Once through the door its clear Banksy has taken the place over. The first large hall has classical statues modified Banksy style. Typical is a rampant Trafalgar Sq lion holding a whip in his blood stained muzzle. British imperealism’s bloody history? Perhaps – but on the ground is the top hat and red coat of the lion tamer. Fantastic – the lion has eaten the lion tamer! Or is it the top hat of the capitalist and the red coat of the British soldiery? Banksy is one of the very few artists who consistently addressed politics over the last decade. For that alone he’s valuable.
Moving on to through, the special gallery reserved for visiting exhibitions is all Banksy. At one end is a recreation of his studio a la Tracey Emin. This is the nearest we get to Banksy the man. A cardigan saying ‘I am a thug’ is draped over his chair. Banksy’s anonymity began as necessity for a graffiti artist chased by the authorities. Its has become a triumph. It’s a top talking point. In an era of hyper celebrity he has managed to create a mega celebrity who is at the same time anonymous. He is able to carry on living and working as a nobody. From Vincent Can Gogh, through Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock and Warhol, artists have continually extended the public personality of the artist. Banksy has taken this further.
The gallery contains a wealth of images, paintings and stencils. A centrepiece is a huge stencil – ‘Workers Of The World Unite’. I can’t say how happy I am to see Marx’s slogan from the Communist Manifeso up in the Museum. But the hooded figure who has nearly finished the slogan is being shouted at by an angry looking council worker on anti graffiti patrol. The pain of lefties who aren’t appreciated by the workers in who’s interests they act.
Out in the next hall are elaborate Edwardian cages holding bizarre robotic animals. In one a young female rabbit with rouge and mascara makes herself up at a dressing table covered in cosmetics. The young rabbit has cut out pics from magazines of glamorous girls that she hopes to look like. She’s blinking a lot and looking rather sad – maybe some of the make up has gone in her eyes.
Banksy is from the Easton area of Bristol – home of anarchist football club The Easton Cowboys, of Bristol Radical History Group, of Kebele Autonomous Community Centre. Animals have featured strongly in his work from the outset. Especially the vivisector’s favourites, the rat and the monkey. The radical re-evaluation of humanities relationship with animals is a big part of his art.
As is the power of the state. His strongest work is often very simple. A sinister Metropolitan Riot Policeman, full body armour, balaclava, helmet, rides perpetually on an amusement arcade child’s ride – a small fairground pony. A sinister and demented image. He brings two opposite objects together and combines them into a third thing that is more than a combination of the two.
And it goes on and on. Around the rest of the Museum, Banksy has inserted work in most of the galleries. There’s spoof classical paintings among the real thing. There’s an eviction notice on the venerable gypsy caravan that has stood in the corner of one gallery ever since I was a little boy.
In the modern art section Banksy has put one of Damian Hurst’s spot paintings. Its called ‘Collaboration Between Damian Hurst and Local Artist: Spot Painting – Improved Version.’ Its one of Hurst’s signature spot paintings, ( perhaps giant pixels as abstract colourist exercise), but Banksy’s rat workman is on the canvas with a big roller and has already managed to paint over half the coloured discs with a nice matt grey paint – maybe NHS grey.
Hurst and Tracey Emin and all the YBA’s were of course ‘discovered’ and promoted by the sinister Charles Satchi. The same man who took Thatcher to power with a powerful advertising campaign. This story has similarities with the way the CIA secretly promoted Pollock, Rothko and the abstract impressionists in the 1950’s. Course this doesn’t mean that Emin, Hurst, Rothko or Pollock were bad artists. But we know about Banksy because his work was followed by a growing band of enthusiasts in Bristol. His first exhibition when he left for London had pictures from £100 to £1000 and was packed – all the stuff sold in a few hours. The books with collections of his images sold and sold and sold. And websites with his images steadily built up to millions of hits world wide. So Banksy is there by popular acclaim. Not by the patronage of rich people. That came later.
So why have hundreds of thousands come to Bristol and queued to see Banksy? He’s political. He’s funny. He’s radical. He’s subversive. You can understand his work. It doesn’t leave you feeling stupid. Its not art about art – which is what a lot of art is. And he could be anybody.