It’s not often a piece of street art produces a profound shift in my thinking but now I’ve seen the “Stealing Banksy?” exhibition, I get why Athenians insist that inside the British Museum is not the right place for the Elgin Marbles.
Stealing Banksy? is part of a process whereby street art works by Banksy are being laundered through some weird kind of “preservation for the public” display exercise before being dispatched down the path always intended by the removers – making a buck for someone (other than Banksy). To be a bit clearer, the works of vandalism created on public property by Banksy, well ok, eight plus the Silent Majority on the side of a trailer done with permission and the not-for-sale “Brace Yourself” done in a deal with a band who were formerly known as “Exit Through The Gift Shop”, were taken from their original location, restored, put on display to the public for 3 days in this exhibition (£20.00 on the door, no cameras) then auctioned to the highest mug – opps, sorry – bidder over the next few days.
What will visitors see and is it really street art?
On Thursday Sincura Grouop held a press conference which included seven Banksy street art pieces and the slightly comical live assembly and unveiling before our eyes of the “No Ball Games” piece, featuring a lot of challenges reconstructing the top section. On Friday, two more pieces had been revealed, the “Girl With Balloon” and the “Boy with Heart” (Banksy and Faile) making a grand total of nine pieces on display. The tenth piece, the Liverpool Rat is described as needing refurbishment but it would have taken something rather larger than a single story indoor room to display.
Are these pieces actually Banksy? Well, the organisers only identify one of the pieces, the Silent Majority, as having Pest Control provenance, Pest Control being Banksy’s company that certifies works as genuine Banksy. This difficulty with lack of proof of the artist has always made reputable auction houses loathe to handle Banksy street art.
Do you think Banksy wants his street work to go through a natural life cycle ending in obliteration on the street or would he prefer it ends up in this un-intended state of restoration and preservation? This is what the great man uploaded to his website on the day of the press conference:
As for it being street art, shifting it indoors has a traumatic effect on the look and feel of these street pieces. Gone is any sense of the relationship they had to their environment. Admiration for the vandal taking risks to create this piece – the “Wow, how did he get away with that?” factor is completely absent. In short, they don’t feel at all like street art. They actually look completely out of place in this situation and one would hazard in any indoor location.
The Berlin door raises the question “doesn’t this rat actually look a little bit silly”, I’m afraid the rats actually come across as rather infantile, which may be what Banksy intended though the impression is magnified hugely by the change of context from urban strasse to moodily lit showroom. No art historian is ever going to laud the artistic genius of our favourite vandal based on this evidence.
What is the impact of the “restoration” that takes “9-12 months” ( per “Liverpool Rat according to the Stealing Banksy’s “The Banksy Bugle” publication). Compare the photos I took of this detail of Tottenham’s No Ball Games, the restoration actually doesn’t look too heavy handed. A light dusting of the stains outside the stencilled portions and a bit of cleaning of the shadow between the chin and the ear looks like about the extent of the difference between the “as painted” condition and the restored condition, though the painted blob just behind the ear seems to have become curiously more emphatic over time! however a photo on the Stealing Banksy website suggests that at the start of restoration it was in appalling condition. That condition was its natural state given its location, lifespan and history, Sincura would have us believe that terrible condition is exactly the justification for saving and restoring the piece. The question is what right do they have to make that judgement?
The Old Skool piece painted in 2005 (“The Banksy Bugle” – 2006) was originally captioned “Thugs For Life” by Banksy and didn’t feature the grey rollered background. This 2006 photo shows it with the grey background but lacking the “Old Skool” that was added later.
Compare the flaking damage in 2006 on the right side and across the chest of the seated granny with the restored version now.
A curious aspect of this “restoration” is that at the time is was removed, apparently after paying the wall owner a mere £1,000, the restorer Tom Orton described the restoration process in the press as involving peeling the 0.25mm thick layer of paint off the wall. In other words, they didn’t take the wall material. In fact, distinguishing features of the wall such at the crack on the buttress that ran horizontally through the nose of the central standing granny are STILL present on the original wall on Clerkenwell Road. In which case, exactly what is the wall on which Thugs For Life is now mounted? Did they take a mould of the wall surface? Whatever they did, the piece is not mounted on its original surface, how can this possibly be regarded as a Banksy?
The Great Eastern St Girl With Balloon was in appalling condition back in 2004, Sincura’s own film of its removal shows at 21 secs that it had deteriorated in the 10 years it was hidden behind wooden cladding. Its present condition amounts to little more than a repaint. While we are on it, The Banksy Bugle says there were 2 “Girl With Balloon”s executed in this area, there were at least 4!
These “restored” pieces bear as much relationship to the original Banksys as a Madame Tussauds waxwork of Lennon and McCartney does to actually being the most brilliant music composers and lyrists of the 20th century.
The organisers have a website which smears a veneer of mitigants, excuses and basically layers of ambiguity and smokescreen over their involvement in the process and the motives of the people on whose behalf they are selling. My friend RJ from Vandalog has done a brilliant dismantling of Sincura’s public proclamations so no need for us to repeat it. One thing to be added is that their claim that the Shoreditch “Girl with Balloon” was “long forgetten” is nonsense, we (author and several of similarly geeky friends) knew it was there, Banksy probably knew it was still there and clearly the building owners knew it was there. Their oft repeated mantra of “On the brink of being lost forever” is laughable, as if this was the Three Graces or some kind of national calamity or art world disaster! This art is meant to be ephemeral.
At risk of getting a bit pedantic and trivial, both The Banksy Bugle and the Stealing banksy website are chock full of errors. There’s a sort of trivia quiz, “10 things you didn’t know about Banksy” and only one of them is supposedly incorrect they say. There’s “5. The Stealing Banksy? show in 2014 was actually commissioned by Banksy himself, through an anonymous company”, seems unlikely. However, “fact” number 1 is “Banksy was behind a famous hoax in 2004, where photoshopped copies of Paris Hilton’s album were distributed in HMV shops”. There are three errors in that sentence alone, (2006, Banksy/Danger mouse remix CD, HMV & Virgin & independent record stores), so which of those two erroneous “facts” do you think they think is incorrect?
The exhibition lasts until Sunday 27th and door admission is £20! Half of that is earmarked for charity but that steep ticket price is not exactly consistent with the general drift that the restoration, display and sale is tantamount to some kind of public service. At that price a family can save enough to buy the petrol for a trip to see the Banksy in Cheltenham with enough left over for a Little Chef burger. Don’t forget in London you can still see the brilliant “Shop ’til You Drop” in Bruton Lane behind Old Bond St too.
Thanks to good friend Joe LdnGraffiti who sorted out access to the press conference and comps to go back and see the pieces after the rest had been revealed.