Friday, 21 August 2009

Banksy vs the Bristol Museum

Benji Corless

Banksy is an artist that needs no introduction. If you do need that introduction, perhaps you should try google or wikipedia and if not knowing what those two sites are is the problem, perhaps continue reading on. A two-minute search will summon perhaps the largest photographic collection of his work that one could imagine. Street artist and Culture jammer, Banksy’s work now has to be the most readily available of its kind in the world, thanks to this exhibition. My mum even wants his prints.


The exhibition is Banksy’s ‘invasion’ of the Bristol Museum, an artistic pilgrimage to his creative upbringing. Here the public queues for two hours, desperate to clamber inside. The whole of Bristol has come out for the event, even the Oxfam bookshop is selling stickers and books trying to bleed off his success. Sorry delete that last sentence, I meant to say ‘trying to celebrate his success’. The museum has allowed Banksy to create an epic gallery of his work from the last ten years, filling rooms, altering existing exhibits and replacing statues with quirky replicas. The exhibition is a great stunt of advertising, allowing the artist to demonstrate his achievements to the masses whilst helping the museum to become less like a morgue without the interesting corpses kicking around.


Although the rooms dedicated to his work are clearly what require reviewing, it’s the rest of the museum that’s far more thought provoking. The upstairs of the museum remains largely untouched, save for a few carefully placed canvasses and alterations to existing pieces. One can wander the stuffed animals, the Japanese porcelain and the local artists rooms but the careful observer can find some hidden wit amongst the boredom. Some will be content with the wheel clamped gyspy caravan or the painterly renaissance images filled with flying saucers. Although some pieces display excellent attention to detail, they appear like ‘easy’ creations, perhaps akin to a schoolboy adding a moustache to a text book.


Occasionally one sees the true genius. The dildo amongst the stalactites, the pokemon cards with the Japanese paraphernalia or the price tag on the Egyptian sarcophagus. These gems aren’t the pieces that everyone photographs nor are they noticed as art. I felt cheered to have discovered them amongst the tat just as I would have at school with the textbooks, and that’s what makes them special. Perhaps these pieces aren’t clever or intelligent, but instead they take an intelligent search to find them. But what else do these hidden pieces mean? They show the joyful Banksy, the one who tries to encourage the public to look further, and to experience the world around us. They appear odd in places, almost indistinguishable from the previous exhibits. They draw the ludicrous from realty and help push it further. Personally I have no idea what the museum was like before the exhibition and in that respect, they certainly have got people through their cobwebbed doors, but it also helped me to actually look at the exhibits, hoping to find something special. Yet the best pieces are often those not attached to the Banksy exhibition, the ones tht Banksys additions hide between; monkey’s anus pointed at us, or the children’s images of Dragons in the Japanese section.


With the previous example in mind, we shall now talk about the rest of the exhibition. Thousands of people with cameras. In a way, that’s what the exhibition became to me at points. One often had the feeling that you were being led around the incredible cavern of images by portable strobe lights. Most of the stencils were previously seen works, presented in full with cut chunks of wall or replicated on giant canvases. Here we can see the real artistry, the intricate lines, and the attention to fine details, the lack of drips. A portion of the main room was filled with a caged area, a recreation of his work space, filled with ideas, sketches, and used stencils. The room was a cartoonised representation of his mind, keeping his real self amorphous and interesting yet helping to convey his youthful aesthetic. Over the room plays a tape of a radio interview about Banksy as an artist/vandal. Played over the installation, one clearly has to see the man as a rapscallion, doodling in school and not meaning any harm, indeed if his works meant anything, they clearly meant to show us that he wanted us to be awakened from our own hazy school dream bubbles.


The main atrium was filled with his New York animatronic pieces. Robotized hotdogs, fur coats and chicken dippers, all appear locked in a forlorn pet shop prison.  Simple movements flop them to-and-fro, giving the puppets just enough to trick the viewer. Flashing cameras and smiling tourists aside, the pieces were scary, downbeat and moving. Banksy wants to convey a message with his work, one that he wants accessible to all. Perhaps most only saw the fame in that room but I personally felt an eerie urge for vegetarianism.


I could go on for hours about specific pieces and things that I saw. If you want to know more I’m sure the internet has it all catalogued somewhere and the gallery is free until late august. To close, I thought I would discuss a few things kicking around my head as I wandered the museum floor. Banksy’s work was once looked at for being silently on the nose and hitting political points in a very simple manner, hence the stencils. They gained him popularity and allowed him to create much larger and more important work such as the animatronics that I previously mentioned, but now he is infamous. He was underground, he was street and he was anonymous and he still is all those things. Or is he? The success of hs work is no bad thing and he has become a pop culture icon, yet can he still produce the same hard hitting pieces when his work is sold at auction for millions? Can he still hit home in the same way now that people fight for photographs of something that we can all go see for free? His work feels less important now he has broken into the art scene but his goal is clearly to make art accessible, shown through the lack of entrance fee and his causal donning of art on public walls. However, his struggle to make art less stuffy seems to go over many people’s heads. I admire him for wanting to make it accessible and evocative and I feel it’s a shame that so many people are too blinded by their camera phones in their faces to see that something’s going on.

Banksy’s group knows what they are doing. By pumping out the cheap shots at the government or defiling incredible paintings they keeps his profits rising, but you only need to look at the incredible masterwork in his ‘apes in parliament’ image above to see that he is putting his money back into his craft. But can he do anything wrong? Praises will arrive one way or another from both sides but until then, I’ll have to keep pushing past the teenagers with iphones rapping about how clever he is, at least until he does something the morons in the Oxfam bookshop hate.

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