He is more than just my favourite cartoonist, even though he doesn’t have a daily newspaper slot yet, he is immensely popular which explains why 2 months into the Banksy vs Bristol Museum show the queue is 500+ queue long with more than an hour until the doors open. True to the myth, Banksy does things his own un-conventional way, in this case he has colluded with a few staff at the museum to give his hometown a monster of a show with virtually no pre-opening publicity and even most staff remained un-aware up until the week of the opening.
The show is mainly new material, though most of it works by reprising themes from many prior phases of Banksy’s modern era career, from an echo of the Natural History museum stuffed rat, the modified masterpieces of the Crude Oils/Barely Legal period, modern interpretations of classical sculptures (Crude Oils/Cans Festival) and the bulk of the New York 2008 Village Petstore animatronics show. Confession time, Banksy made up some of the caption for the pictures here, Graffoto made up the rest, it’s not clear which are which.
Three rooms plus the entrance foyer in the museum/gallery are exclusively and explicitly Banksy’s. The first contains a burnt ice cream van with the melted ice cream cone surrounded by various sculptural figures; the second room contains his paintings and a compact reconstruction of his Studio, whilst the third uses a zoo cage format to house the animatronics. Other than those dedicated spaces the rest of the museum is sprinkled with Banksy’s covertly (for sake of the legend, let’s pretend) inserted artifacts and paintings. A comprehensive guide to the show written by Graffoto contributor shellshock can be found in an earlier blog post ‘ere.
Banksy tilts against many windmills but by skilfully taking the side of the righteous common man at all times he doesn’t make enemies. Subjects teased by the Bristolian wit in this show include pompous authority, cultural elitism, organised religion, dis-organised religion, corporatism, CCTV surveillance, lost childhood innocence and militarism.
The most spectacular and one of the most amusing canvasses on show develops one of Banksy’s most famous images, the “Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge” placard monkey is extrapolated to a scene from the House of Commons where the primates really have taken over, only to slip into the stereotypical boorish, baying, sniggering, posturing behaviour of MPs familiar from TV news shots of PM’s questions. This epic painting provides sumptuous amusement to the viewer prepared to linger over the detail.
Banksy usually pokes fun at authority so it is amusing to see the ultimate authority, a grey-rinsed, pinafored mother carefully arranging the face bandana of the punk quaffed anarchist in “Don’t Forget Your Scarf”. “Couldn’t possibly have you going on the riot looking like you don’t know how to dress yourself darling” she seems to say.
Banksy’s main picture room contains a studio mock-up which is absolutely fascinating, though impossible to spend more than a few minutes in front of with the pressure of the crowds. Small working sketches pinned to walls hint at the evolution of Banksy’s masterpieces as well as perhaps either a large number of ideas which got ditched at the concept stage or may indeed be seen on a street somewhere sometime in the future [during the drafting of this, one of the sketches which provoked that thought HAS been turned into a street piece]. An arsenal of used Banksy tag stencils of various sizes hang ready to go, which is ironic as Banksy hasn’t tagged his street pieces for a long time, certainly not in this era when the majority of his street work is legal.
Not everything in this second Banksy room is easy to comprehend. A central feature consists of a heavily graffiti’d wall lain on the floor with cleaning tools lying around, the end of the wall that has been subject to buffing has warped into some kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Einstein mesh surface. This probably requires some thinking but on the basis that Banksy’s concepts never requires deep thought, well, frankly we moved on but did notice a small scale prototype of the wall lying around on the floor of the studio mock-up.
Other favourites include the Britannia who has replaced the trident symbolising the nautical supremacy through which the Empire was won with a CCTV through which she now maintains her law and order, Simon Cowell inserted into a Degas “strictly come ballet dancing at The Opera, Rue Petelier” ballet scene and the iconic photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, father of many major feats of civil engineering which still form part of the railway infrastructure today, collaged with a sign giving directions to “buses on rail replacement service”.
Some of the gags are funny but only in a fairly weak way, the “Loft conversion coming soon” links modern property developers to the colonial fighters winning the West 225 years ago but the visual pun is too remote from modern-day dream-home sellers to be really funny. Perhaps this image defines a dilemma for Banksy, we generally enjoy a directness and simplicity in the humour and while the joke here is that the American Frontier War led has centuries later to US loft conversion and thus gentrification, it isn’t sufficiently obvious – if Banksy doesn’t serve up simplicity and laughs then he has failed.
Seeing the animatronics show reproduced here smooths over a niggle that such a radically different departure was unveiled in NY and had hitherto been un-seen in the UK. The hot dogs jokes work because we know Banksy is making fun of things that aren’t good for you but which Americans consume in large quantities and they look like willies and behave like pet gerbils. The adult CCTV tending its three fledglings looks like an eagle-eyed mother protectively watching over her brood thanks to the clever simulation of the swivelling motions of a CCTV scanning for potential wrong doing or suspicious people with less than 10 quid haircuts, at the same time Banksy is revisiting his concerns over the proliferation of CCTVs in our society so putting them in cages suggests protection and an official breeding program.
CCTV fledglings; NolionsinenglandThe most refreshing and enjoyable feature of the show are the Banksy booby trap devices scattered around the rest of the permanent displays outside the three Banksy rooms. Sewn quietly into various display cases of geological wonders, porcelain dolls and what the show guide describes as “boring old plates” are Banksy’s inserted subversions. Among examples of what look like West Country vicar’s wife’s tea sets there is one of those nauseatingly twee Sunday supplement cutsey kitten plates.
Other inappropriate insertions include a gas mask wearing ballerina among porcelain figurines and a bong pipe with grass debris amongst white china decorated in a classical Greek style. A stuffed rat clasping a with backpack paint brush furtively addresses an intricately patterned silk but doesn’t actually mark it, there are limits to the license granted for actually defacing the original exhibits. This piece is an extension of the legendary pranks on the Natural History museum and British museum where he secreted fully labelled spoof works into the displays without the staffs’ knowledge. Elsewhere in the Bristol Museum if you look carefully you can find the “Peckham trolley” hunter on stone.
This treasure hunt cleverly walks a line between obvious and the obscure, teasing us with the uncertainty over whether items may be “real or Banksy”. One new acquisition to the natural history section mocks a label on a glass surface which highlights some fossil evidence of dinosaur skin (frankly, not that surprising) with a label over another section of pebbly looking stones identifying dinosaur sick. Or is it new? Graffoto could not reach a consensus.
The duality of being a museum AND an art gallery allows Banksy, attributed as “Local Artist”, to hang a scattering of canvasses among the paintings permanently displayed to generations of Bristolian children and pensioners in the building. The Banksy’s are modified oil paintings which construct their gag by taking scuzzy aspects of contemporary urban society and throwing them into incongruous relief against a painting of the rustic tranquillity of a bygone era. Such pieces work in isolation, making a point or creating a gag within themselves and no need to look further but others react with or to their surroundings, looking incongruous, cheeky, and just plain wrong. Mastery of placement of street art is a Banksy hallmark and in the gallery setting he maintains a relish for allowing his jokes to bounce off the surrounding artifacts. “How Do You Like Your Eggs” hits twin targets in giving a burkha-shrouded cook a saucy western lingerie apron and it also mimics the somewhat stilted gestures of the adjacent grandiose portraits.
“Dogging”, originally shown in the LA Barely Legal show, features a straw-hatted shepherd accompanied by his beagle on the bank of a stream whilst on the opposite bank in an aging Ford Escort a pair of white buttocks does the business between a pair of plump thighs ending in ankles on the dashboard. It is so 20th century urban Britain that we must all get the joke.
Favourite for many among the Banksy modified oil paintings hidden in the posh part of the museum is Agency Workers in which a peasant labouring in the field of Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners has left the plane of the picture and takes a relaxed looking cigarette break. At the same time, Banksy likens the minimum wage worker to gleaners scavenging the last available sustenance from the leavings of civilisation but simultaneously capturing serene pleasure in a secret skive off work.
With a lot of Banksy’s art it is easy to scratch the surface to reveal a political theme underneath, albeit usually quite weak. Perhaps the most political piece is the Guantanamo prisoner-of-war/detainee/criminal (delete according to which legislature you are in) using a Bristol Boxkite plane which has been in the permanent exhibition for decades to make a Colditz style escape. Any protest against un-just detention without legal representation and denial of prisoner’s legal rights is too deeply submerged under the visual joke to really make a political point. But then again, its great to see what Banksy does with the incumbent Musseum paraphenalia. The Battered Buddha which really worked very well as a spray painted image at the Cans Festival re-appears as a bland milky white statue with almost indiscernible colouring to represent bruising and blood. At the time of Cans Festival in 2008, the assault by Chinese security forces on Buddhist monks at Lhasa was comparatively recent and everyone was aware of it, now the plight of the monks has slipped off the agenda so this piece is sort of left in limbo, it’s a new work with little context but it references a retrospective piece which was intensely current at the time piece.
Organised religion shouldn’t be immune from teasing though even Banksy seems to pull his punches in the sketch “Prophet Muhammad Reclining Nude”, the joke of course is Muhammad posing for a painting and in the nude at that, whereas under Islamic tradition it is basically prohibited to create an image of the prophet, so of course Banksy doesn’t since there would be too much irony that Banksy whose sacred image is almost as jealousy protected should breach a prophet’s “no image” rights.
The show has had several additions since the opening including a tear streaked Ronald McDonald reflecting on a soul-less existence and nutrition-lite food optimised for minimum cost and maximum addiction, a bottle of hooch by his side, dangling his legs over a high ledge over the outside main door whilst the queuing masses not directly in the splat zone silently will him to fall off.
Perhaps the keynote of Banksy’s oeuvre this time out is nostalgia, a chance to re-visit some of the gags that have delighted us in the past, a chance to share in the knowing taunts against Establishment, though the tone is more sniggering tease rather than tormenting. The show re-affirms his status as the country’s favourite mischief maker, ironic as there is nothing illegal as such about this outing. His place in the heart is akin to the naughty boy who endears himself to all, a West Country Dennis The Menace or some latterday Robin Hood. This show further binds his work into our hearts even though there is a discomforting suspicion that we the common herd are the target of much of his wit. Gotta be able to laugh at ourselves, like.
A side effect of this show is that pictures from the show have flooded the internet which has had to be expanded to cope. Among the better sets Graffoto recommends (and reminding you the shellshock/Graffoto guide can be found here)