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The Art of Banksy is a must-see, but only for hypocrites

★★★★☆



Banksy graffiti on Newman Street - One Nation Under CCTV


The Art of Banksy on Regent Street boasts the largest collection of original and authenticated works by the street artist in the world, including many privately-owned works never before seen on public display. Alongside some of Banksy’s most famous and iconic images, such as the ‘Flower Thrower’ (2003), the exhibition features a number of poignant lesser-known works, as well as glimpses into the artist’s elusive private life in the form of ephemera and personal gifts. However, forcing visitors to enter and exit through a gift shop that occupies a third of the space, the exhibition – which is not curated by the artist – is steeped in irony. Its commercialism is juxtaposed against the anti-capitalist and anti-establishment messaging of pieces like ‘Festival’ (2006) and ‘Morons’ (2006), and adds to their cynicism. The viewer is captured within the double bind of a commercialised art world, and implicated in its hypocrisy.


The basement room of the exhibition charts Banksy’s career from his twenties in Bristol through his early exhibitions to his present international fame. Beginning with his adoption of the faster and more detailed technique of stencilling, inspired by the serial number of a train carriage under which he hid from police, it explores the development of the artist’s techniques, visual style, and political sensibility. The artwork comments on a wide range of social issues including environmental damage, capitalism, and war, illustrating the political history of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and deftly draws upon imagery from both popular culture and celebrated painters from DaVinci to Monet to Warhol. It effectively juxtaposes the innocence of these images with the violence and corruption of the world they inhabit. Disney is a favourite target, with Jungle Book characters placed in deforested landscapes, and Mickey Mouse holding the hand of a napalm victim. Particularly poignant and current, though, were pieces from the Walled Off Hotel, which opened in Bethlehem in 2017 to coincide with the centenary of Britain’s occupation of Palestine, and has had to temporarily close because of recent events.


On the first floor are some of Banksy’s most well-known works, including ‘Kate Moss’ (2005) and three colour variations of ‘Girl with Balloon’ (2002), accompanied by video commentary from a collaborator and co-founder of Picture on the Wall. Alongside these are several more personal items, including birthday cards written to ex-girlfriends, of which the original version of ‘The Flower Thrower’ is one, and thank-you notes addressed to those who contributed, unwittingly, to the construction of Dismaland (2015). A prominent theme in many of the works displayed is the critique of capitalism, and especially of the commercialism of the artistic establishment. But the exhibition also gives the impression of Banksy’s inevitable absorption into this world of commerce. In 2019, he was advised to sell merchandise in order to legally protect his name and brand, resulting in the opening of his shop Gross Domestic Product, and, as the exhibition demonstrates, many of his artworks are now privately-owned.


This unauthorised exhibition is perhaps the culmination of the commodification of Banksy’s artworks, a symbol of their circulation both as privately-owned originals and merchandise. We may laugh at the hypocrisy of festival-goers buying anti-capitalist t-shirts, but as we pay to do so, we are implicated in that hypocrisy too. The exhibition collects together some of Banksy’s most politically striking artworks, addressing themes which remain as pertinent as at their conception. But perhaps the most important question it poses is the implicit one of what is lost when these artworks are removed from walls, sold, and removed from public view.


'The Art of Bansky' is on at 84-86 Regent Street until 15th April. Students go for £15.

 

Edited by Samuel Blackburn

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