The mysteriously private street artist known as Banksy has enjoyed some very public and widespread acclaim for his work in recent years. Thought to have been born in 1974 and raised in the Bristol area, Banksy (who does not reveal his full identity due to ongoing legal complications) has stated that he first got into spray painting around the age of 10, thanks to a kid called 3D (who went on to form the band Massive Attack). 3D had been to New York and is said to be the first to bring spray-can art to the streets of Bristol. While the authorities have removed some of Banksy’s early spray paintings, there are some that survive, such as the immensely popular Mild Mild West, showing a teddy bear aiming a Molotov cocktail at riot police, which, due to public pressure, has been preserved since it appeared in 1998.
Much of Banksy’s work has a political message. He stenciled a hole revealing clear blue skies—one of nine such paintings there altogether—on the Palestinian side of Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank, and planted a sculpture of a life-size Guantánamo Bay detainee inside one of the rides at Disneyland. Banksy does not approve of the removal or sale of any of his street art, although his works on canvas, board or metal sell for hefty prices at auction and are loved by collectors across the world.
His largest and longest running exhibition project to date, “Banksy versus Bristol City Museum,” marked the artist’s homecoming and, ironically, was staged in a public museum under the authority of the very people who have been whitewashing over the graffiti art that he has been strewing across the city for years. In true Banksy style, though, the whole operation was top secret, with only a handful of museum staff (even city authorities and museum trustees were kept in the dark) aware of the show’s imminent arrival. And, throughout the months of preparation and during the 36-hour shutdown period during which Banksy, the self-proclaimed “quality vandal,” and his crew took over the museum for installation, no one ever caught a glimpse of the man himself.
The Edwardian Bristol City Art Museum is a typical school-trip destination, complete with taxidermied animals, classical statues and old-master paintings. The Banksy exhibition, featuring 100 works, 78 of which are new,was a full-scale infiltration and remix of the museum and its collections. The information desk in the main hall became a life-size, burnt-out ice-cream van covered in graffiti and topped with a gigantic sculpture of a runny ice-cream cone. It was surrounded by several retrofitted classical sculptures, among them a binge drinker, a Paris Hilton look-alike weighed down by designer bags, and a suicide bomber.
A dimly lit room housed Banksy’s caged mechanical sculptures, some displayed last year in his storefront fake pet shop in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. A mother hen watched over her chicken-nugget little ones pecking away at a synthetic-looking sauce in a fast-food plastic container; encased raw sausages, salamis and hot dogs writhed and squirmed in a sickly sexual manner; what looked from the back like a cheetah curled in the branches of a tree was chillingly revealed to be a fur coat.
The artist’s anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment obsessions really came out in a room crammed with graffiti art, tags, installations, familiar Banksy stencils and many paintings. The image of an Alpine landscape bears a single asterisk above its snow-capped peak and reads, at the bottom, “Subject to availability, for a limited period only.” Another scene shows riot police playfully skipping through a meadow.
On the first floor, visitors of all types enjoyed participating in a lighthearted game of “spot the Banksy” among the permanent collections. Many of the pieces here were tongue-in-cheek, including the dainty, hand-painted, clearly used hash pipe hidden within the pottery display. Like assisted readymades, vandalized reproductions of paintings in the museum’s permanent collection appeared, such as a Millet with a peasant woman stepping out of the frame for a quick cigarette, or a Monet in which shopping carts have been dumped into a picturesque lily pond.
Judging from the long queues spilling out of Bristol Museum every day and the great enthusiasm displayed by visitors, the artist’s decision to come indoors for a while was only good. The strength of Banksy’s work lies in the fact that, even in a museum environment, his messages are direct enough to reach anyone on the street.