“The Art of Banksy” is the title of the exhibition on the art of the most famous street art artist of our time, which has been opened on June 16th in Berlin. The circumstances of the show are just as mysterious as the identity of Banksy. There is no official internet presence of the event and the location is perplexing: it takes place in the rooms of the former luxury club Felix at the backside of the Hotel Adlon.
Capitalism critic Banksy at a luxury establishment, where until recently snobbish teenies from the party scene had a blast? As paradoxical as it may sound, at the basement of the building at Behrenstraße there are actually hanging pictures by Banksy. The show was organized and curated by Steve Lazarides, who has supposedly managed Banksy until 2008. Therefore he has brought together about 80 works from different collections all over the world, some of the presented works never have been seen in public. According to Lazarides the worth of the exhibited works amounts to 23 million euros. Like Banksy Lazarides comes from Bristol, after a dispute on the marketing of his pictures they are said to have broke up.
Banksy neither has curated the exhibition himself, nor has he authorized it, and it can be easily imagined, that the exhibition rooms meet Banksy’s ethical expectations in no way. The admission price of 19,75 euros is outrageous and leaves a bad aftertaste. One gets the impression, that this is a sales show on Banksy devotional objects like T-shirts and coffee cups. Before this weird exhibition in Berlin the works have been shown in Istanbul, Melbourne, Antwerp and Amsterdam. On display are screenprints, paintings and sculptures, amongst them icons such as “Girl with Balloon“ and pictures from the “Rat“ series.
Unfortunately street art enthusiasts have to lower their sights, as the sterile ambience gives little cause to indulge in a real Banksy feeling, which one might know from street. The presentation looks improvised, the built-in walls are cobbled together carelessly, and the images are illuminated poorly. In view of the fact that there are countless abandoned industrial buildings in Berlin, which have an immensely higher charm factor, the choice of this location is utterly dreadful. The vicinity of the Brandenburger Tor obviously was the commercial main driver for this decision. Nevertheless, Banksy fans, who are willing to pay the overpriced admission charge, will get their money’s worth, as the images speak for themselves, both through their subversive messages and their technical quality. Especially the screenprints, that basically work like reversed spraying stencils, can’t deny the influence of Andy Warhol. In his series “Kate Moss“, which consists of six color prints, Banksy pays tribute to the father of pop art.
Banksy, Kate Moss
Banksy uses the stencil just like Andy Warhol the screenprint.
Street art hasn’t been acknowledged as an art form for a long time, not before politically engaged artists like Banksy showed up, who struggle against the neoliberalism of the recent decades, this artistic form of expression has become socially acceptable. Forerunners of today’s street art primarily emerged from the graffiti scene in Bristol in the 1980s, graffiti was practiced by teenagers from the middle class, who lived in run-down quarters. Goal of their activities was sheer provocation against the church, the military and the establishment. The signatures sprayed with aerosol cans were generally called “tagging“, for the neutral viewer, however, they were nothing else than smearing, and for affected residents, whose house walls were tagged, it was pure destruction of private property.
The youthful criminals were pursued by the local law enforcement, the Barton Youth Club in Bristol was a haven for them, where they worked on new designs, styles and techniques during the day. At night they went out to embellish train stations, dustbins and entrance doors, the fear of being caught was always present, but this thrill was part of the game and forced the artists to work fast. Also Banksy was almost caught by the police, that’s why he abandoned the spray can technique in 2002 and started to work with his favourite tool, the stencil. He could prepare these so-called “stencils“ without any hurry and spray detailed graffiti with them in no time.
Banksy, Flying Copper
Banksy, Pregnant Monkey
“I started painting graffiti in the classic New York style you use when you listen to too much hip hop as a kid, but I was never very good at it. As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there. The ruthlessness and the efficiency of it are perfect.“ Banksy’s decision to switch to the “stencil“ wasn’t for aesthetic reasons only, but for functional ones as well. He was inpired by Blek Le Rat, who had also used stencils for his “Rat“ series. Stencils were also used during the student riots in Paris in the 1960s, in order to spread the revolutionary messages quickly and effectively.
Banksy took the risk of being ostracized by the community for using stencils.
Nevertheless stencils were frowned upon in the graffiti scene at the turn of the millennium, although they have been tried by many sprayers. From this point of view Banksy’s step, to focus on the stencil technique, was pretty daring, as he was running the risk of being ostracized by his gang DryBreadZ Crew. But his respect for Blek Le Rat was deeper. Banksy’s ironic, black humour, that characterizes his work, wouldn’t have emerged to such an extent without the use of stencils, the girl holding a bomb or the tiger, that breaks out of the barcode cage, are among his most powerful works, which result from this technique.
Banksy, Mother Teresa
The simplicity of the technique, the dominance of black and white, as well as the combination of image and text, makes a piece of street art easy to identify with. The public can do without any knowledge of art history, tradition and art theory to read and enjoy this art form. Banksy’s “Rat“ series could be just as well caricatures of average citizens, their social messages are so blatant and easily accessible, that even viewers, that normally aren’t receptive to art, willingly get into it and agree with the statement of the artist.
One of the most interesting aspects of the phenomenon Banksy is undoubtedly his unknown identity. Banksy insists on anonymity and never signs his works in public space on principle, for the simple reason, that he could be prosecuted for vandalism, but also to keep his myth alive. A small circle of insiders should know about his identity, but up to now the wall of secrecy lasts, in order to protect his anonymity. Is he a man or maybe a woman? The social subject matter and children frequently showing up in the pictures could support this theory. There are speculations again and again, even an artist collective has been presumed already. Just recently a British DJ allegedly let something slip out and put out the rumour, that Banksy could be Robert Del Naja, the lead singer of the band Massive Attack. The detection of new Banksy graffiti and the international locations of the tour of the band could be linked to it. Was it an unintentional comment or the calculated implementation of an ingenious marketing strategy, in order to keep the myth of Banksy in the public eye?
Banksy, Kids on Guns
“Pest Control“ takes care of the authorization of Banksy’s prints.
In order to exclude copycats, Banksy documents his works, which he leaves throughout the world, on his website http:/banksy.co.uk and additionally runs a certification office called “Pest Control“, which confirms the authenticity of prints. Banksy has invalidated many dogmas of the art world, his signature is his refusal to sign, his CV doesn’t exist and can’t be used as a pattern of explanation with regard to his images, and he questions privately owned art, instead he occupies public space, thus turning art into cultural common property. He is asking essential questions, that bother everybody, without wanting to give any answers. His images leave the viewer alone with astonishment and confront him with a distorted and disconcerting version of reality, which he is used to ignore without hesitation. Banksy calls things as they are, which is something, that the official art prefers to avoid, in order to remain attractive to potent collectors. Banksy’s work just mocks and distrusts a world, that measures the worth of a piece of art only according to where the author ranks in the international artist ranking right now. He confronts this cult of a small wealthy elite, that determines, what may be considered as art and what doesn’t, with an imagery, that can’t be possessed and touches on the sensitive issues.
Astutely he denunciates capitalism, the excesses of mindless consumption and war. He has a clear position concerning society, which brutalizes individuals and opens the floodgates to extremism. Islamist terrorism, the scourge of the 21st century, plays a major role in his political oeuvre, a replica of Michelangelo’s David is wearing a bullet proof vest and the Ballerina by Degas becomes a black widow with gas mask. A Christian sacrilege is his Madonna and Child, who has a bomb fastened to his chest, for Banksy religious denomination is irrelevant, as in his point of view any religion bears the nucleus of violence and terror.
Banksy’s works have lifted street art from a spontaneous form of expression, that has emerged from the fringe of society, to an officially accepted art form, which has arrived at the heart of society and has taken root in collective consciousness, without having been the declared target of the graffiti scene. “I’m not so interested in convincing people in the art world that what I do is art, I’m more bothered about convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do really is vandalism.“ Banksy understands art as a new way of seeing, in order to rethink public space, and the role of art as creation of an individual aesthetic expression, that transforms the common artistic practice through guerilla methods and the occupation of illicit spaces.
Banksy, Bullet Proof David
The spirit of Monty Python comes to life in Banksy’s images.
His social messages don’t shy away from provocations, that undermine the ethics and aesthetics of the mainstream, in order to topple heroic icons from their pedestals. Banksy considers the clinging to certain traditions and dogmas as the fundamental evil of ethnic and religious conflicts. “The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It is people who follow orders, that drop bombs and massacre villages. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we’re told, this is the only way we can be sure.“
Being confronted with a work by Banksy normally means a slap in the face of the viewer, smartly he applies his distinct British humour, which is undeniably influenced by Monty Python, in order to reduce questionable social rules ad absurdum by means of dadaistic tricks: in “Happy Chopper Crude Oil“ combat helicopters with cute hair ribbons are flying through an idyllic landscape. At the same time he turns the viewer into an accomplice in spreading his subversive messages, by offering him a projection screen through his blatant images to reflect his own urge to revolt against the elites obsessed with power.
Banksy, Happy Chopper Crude Oil
In doing so Banksy differentiates between social institutions and the people, that are behind them, being more victims than perpetrators themselves. He loves to turn stereotype role clichés upside down, cops show rude gestures and Winston Churchill has got a Mohawk haircut, whereas punks get their outfit controlled by their moms, before they go on the rampage. He even shows sympathy with the policemen, who give him a hard time as a graffiti artist. To ask himself the questions, that actually should be asked by the public in order to look for answers in a common dialogue, makes his artistic greatness, always being aware that there aren’t any quick solutions and simple truths even less. In the dark corners of illegality he sketches his vision of human dignity and at the same time relentlessly reveals the most mean-spirited traits, the human species is capable of.
16.06. – 30.10.17 Berlin, Behrenstraße 72