Touring 22 cities, the exhibition, “Banksyland” positively groans with irony. Promising “originals, hand produced editions, salvaged street artworks, and never-before-seen installations,” the show, which recently stopped in Austin, is unauthorized by the artist.
It’s another in a handful of productions boasting Banksy art but potentially leaving viewers wanting. Like another recent traveling show, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” “Banksyland” eschews absolute authenticity, instead generating an event capitalizing on the artist’s reputation — in this case, the pseudonymous, and best known for the being least known artist of the 21st century.
Bristol-born Street artist Banksy started out as a freehand painter/graffiti artist in the 1990s but by the early 2000s gained serious public attention for his stencils. These works were anti-authoritarian in tone and contained highly legible figural images sometimes with slogan-type text. Iconography included rats, monkeys, children, policemen and soldiers.
Out of his stencil practice evolved more elaborately planned interventions (or stunts), installations and built environments. Between 2003 and 2005, a disguised Banksy walked into the hallowed halls of museums in London, New York and the like, and surreptitiously hung his own work on the walls.
Banksy hit the U.S. in 2006 with “Barely Legal” a surprise exhibition held in an industrial warehouse in Los Angeles, noted for featuring a live elephant painted to match the magenta and gold wallpaper installed as part of the show. The literal elephant-in-the-room was meant to represent the avoidance of political discussion concerning world poverty.
Three years later Bristol Museum & Art Gallery put on a large-scale exhibition called “Banksy versus Bristol Museum” revealing new work and works that responded to those already in the museum collection. The artist released a statement joking that rather than taxpayer money going towards removing his work for once, public funds were helping hang it.
By 2010, the mystery of the artist’s identity became a main subject in the artist’s directorial debut and documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The film’s title (a reference to the museum blockbuster practice of routing spectators through shops prior to exiting galleries) navigates the viewer through the world of Street Art and Banksy’s frequent theme of critiquing consumer culture, notions of value, and the artworld establishment, including its hypocrisy.
The artist went big with “Dismaland,” a pop-up amusement park in southern England. The dystopian theme-park packed with socio-political satire featured Banksy sculpture, defunct rides, and casted actors as (mostly miserable looking) security staff. While incredibly ambitious, the prank-project got mixed reviews.
Soon after Banksy continued to cause controversy with his part museum-part functioning tourist lodging, “The Walled Off Hotel.” With virtually all Banksy work, location is key, and this time the hotel, which opened in 2017, backed up to the West Bank Barrier separating Israel from Palestinian territories. Banksy bragged it was the “the worst view of any hotel in the world”
More recently, in 2018 a version of Banksy’s famous “Girl with Balloon” (2006) was destroyed in a shredder at Sotheby’s London as part of an intervention titled “Love is in the Bin.” Banksy later released a video showing how the shredder was installed in the frame and made purposefully. Three years after the Sotheby’s sale, the shredded painting sold for $25.3 million, a huge jump from the $1.4 million it fetched originally.
While no wall text or brochure is present in “Banksyland,” the exhibition includes a mixture of flat work, items from previous Banksy projects (like one of the Banksy designed welcome mats made from life vests found on the Mediterranean beaches and sewn by Greek refugees); three dimensional fabrications (like the “Love is in the Air” installation “inspired by” Banksy’s original 2-D work, but not identified as such); and videos. Large-scale photos from “Dismaland” and “The Walled Off Hotel as well as a framed “Visit Historic Palestine” souvenir poster from “The Walled Off Hotel” are on view.
There are a lot of reproductions or “re-imagined” 3-D plaster models of stenciled works. For example, at the entrance is “Flower Thrower” from a 2003 stencil depicting a masked Palestinian throwing a bouquet of flowers, which originally the appeared on a wall in the West Bank. There are also smaller Banksy inspired cast resin statuettes like the altered Michelangelo’s David “Suicide Man” and “Flying Balloon Girl, “produced by Banksy X Brandalism.”
Over a label-less version (canvas prints are widely available) of Banksy’s “Devolved Parliament” in which House of Commons politicians are replaced with chimpanzees, bananas hang on a string. The monkey motif can be seen again in the monochromatic “Laugh Now” depicting a chimp holding a placard bearing the words “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge” and “Monkey Detonator,” both using the monkey as a symbol of oppression, revolution, and the destructive tendencies of humankind.
French artist Blek le Rat did it first, but Banksy’s use of rats which began early in his career are widely recognizable. For street artists the apt symbol suggests the staying power and rapid population of its media despite law enforcement’s efforts to remove it. From the original Utah sited mural is a smaller “Rat with 3D Glasses.” “Slow Rat” holds a stop sign. And the endearing (and rare signed, hand-numbered, and stamped) “Love Rat,” wields a red paint dipped brush under his hand-painted red heart.
“Banksyland” pulls together photos of stenciled works, stenciled spray paint on cardboard works, and silkscreens which are accompanied by very small labels identifying origins only as being loaned by private collectors from various international art hubs: Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, New York, and Hong Kong.
We’ll have to assume they come with the all-important COA (certificate of authentication) offered exclusively through Banksy’s website Pest Control. Since Banksy prints come in both unsigned and signed editions, certification is everything. And these days, there is no real primary market for the artist’s work. Banksy doesn’t sell directly through dealers or his former printers, Pictures on Walls, anymore. It’s all secondary market sales now, and Pest Control is the gatekeeper for authentication/certification.
The tricky nature exhibiting Street Art has been documented. In its purest sense Street Art is unsanctioned, done illegally, and publicly positioned in the urban environment. It’s controversial, subversive, transgressive and free for the viewer. However, when Banksy’s works are quickly snatched it off the streets and moved into the art market at a very high price, it becomes difficult to see a true Banksy in the wild. In the past, to enhance access, the artist released print editions of iconic stencils to democratize his work and made his exhibitions free.
That a ticketed art exhibition — $29-plus-some for general admission and a heftier fee for VIP — in a 4500-square-foot downtown event rental space (800 Congress boasts an “open warehouse look that’s industrial yet polished with original exposed brick and foundation walls”) is the only way to see Banksy is paradoxical. That the show felt more like a social media content grab op, equally so. Add to that the merchandise, yes, lots of merch — purchased when and where? On exiting the exhibition — adds to the weirdness of it all.
Wondering whether the irony is in fact part of some clever plan, one can look to the artist’s previously published warnings against “fake” shows. His website’s FAQ page also states “Banksy has NOTHING to do with any of the current or recent exhibitions and they are nothing like a genuine Banksy show. They might be crap so please don’t come to us for a refund.”
Looking to the show’s organizers, who call themselves, One Thousand Ways, proves equally head scratching. Several reports indicate the organization originally intended to be nonprofit, with goals to donate “Banksyland” proceeds to arts organizations, yet show spokesperson and curator Elle Miller told the Seattle Times that while that was her first intent she was advised “to do an LLC because of the complications of running a not-for-profit.” The Banksyland website says One Thousand Ways is “an international experiential arts collective specializing in innovative immersive events throughout the globe. With an established presence in North America, Europe and Asia, our global team of curators and producers create experiences in the service of our mission: To inspire social change through art that captures the attention of diverse audiences and unites cultures.”
After researching the group, who makes up this collective and team remains unclear.
Transparency on the money trail associated with the venture is still lacking. The non-profit goal (at least on the Banksyland website) appears to have evaporated as quickly as a Banksy painting in a shredder.
The last irony is as confusing as this whole affair is, knock-off or not, Banksy’s work is still able to communicate the problems of public consumption, and our culpability in taking political propaganda, media messages and the artist’s work as truth.
“Banksyland” extended its run in Austin and ended July 31. The immersive exhibition is scheduled to appear in Houston, Texas on August 12, followed by Nashville, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Columbus Ohio. Locations are announced to two weeks in advance.