Review: ‘Art of Banksy’ Exhibition
Visited Friday 20 September 2019
Reviewed by Rosalind Gustafson
An unauthorised exhibition of infamous street artist Banksy’s work from the beginning of his career up until 2009, curated by his former agent Steve Lazarides, The Art of Banksy offers a strong overview of Banksy’s work. Featuring many of Banksy’s more famous and more obscure pieces, as well as his pranks, larger projects, and collaborations with other artists, the exhibition also offers a number of insights into Banksy’s artistic process and to who he is as a man, with many humorous and humanising anecdotes being offered that show more of Banksy’s character beyond his identity as a left-wing street artist. While a solid introduction for any layperson to Banksy’s work, the exhibition is oddly devoid of the political themes present in so many of his pieces, and it is something of an exercise in irony, beginning with the $35 tickets and culminating with the exit through the gift shop. With no context, it is a good exhibition, but for anyone who knows anything about Banksy, it does seem to rather miss the point.
The exhibition certainly gives a very broad overview of Banksy’s work up until the year 2008, when he and curator Steve Lazarides parted ways. Not only are his more famous works, such as Girl with Balloon, Love is in the Air, and Rude Copper included, and in various forms that show the stages they went through before reaching the final version, but many of his more obscure works (at least by this reviewer’s estimation), like Weston Super Mare, Trolleys, and Have a Nice Day also make appearances. Also displayed and discussed in the various videos featured in the exhibition are some of his larger projects, such as Barely Legal, the collaborations he undertook with various other artists (including an incident where he persuaded a band named Exit Through the Gift Shop to rename themselves to Brace Yourself), and even the pranks he’s undertaken, like the ten-pound notes bearing the face of Princess Diana and the words ‘Banksy of England’ and the Paris Hilton CD he remixed, then had ‘reverse-shoplifted’ in numerous stores, replacing the actual CD. For somebody who knows very little of Banksy, the exhibition is highly informative and a good introduction to the work that he’s done. Nevertheless, I felt as if more attention could have been paid to his post-2009 works, instead of stopping with Bacchus at the Seaside; Lazarides may have had no involvement with Dismaland, the Walled-Off Hotel, or Love is in the Bin, but I would say that these works are just as relevant and worthy of being exhibited as the ones Lazarides was involved with, especially given the themes they tackle.
From what I know of Banksy, I suspect the exhibition has its priorities wrong with regards to what is presented. Much attention is given to the process of making art, to artist’s proofs, studies, and so forth, and to Banksy’s history with Lazarides. Less, however, is given to the political themes that underlie so much of Banksy’s work. These works fill up several sections of the exhibition, and one of the videos discusses Lazarides’ views on Banksy’s politics—views with which he mostly disagrees, I might add, while expressing the belief that Banksy tends to simplify complicated situations for the sake of ‘pithy one-liners’. The artworks, however, are largely stripped of their political context, at least in part due to their being in an exhibition rather than in situ, and also because there are few attendant descriptions to give them any context. While this may be no problem for a student of Banksy, the average layperson may well have difficulty comprehending the meaning of pieces such as Napalm, Stop and Search, Have a Nice Day, and arguably even the more famous Girl with Balloon and Love is in the Air. Certainly, I felt as if many of the pieces’ messages went right over my head. Given that so much of Banksy’s art is intensely political, for the exhibition to strip them of their political context and meaning does both them and him a great disservice.
Still, perhaps to compensate for this weakness, there is a decently human element in the exhibition, as Lazarides shares many stories of the adventures he got up to with Banksy, including the time Banksy painted a cow and the time when, in preparation for the Barely Legal exhibition, Lazarides went to Los Angeles looking for a space that could hold a live elephant. While Banksy remains as anonymous as ever, I feel these stories give a good insight into the person behind the name and the art, make him more relatable to the average person, and given the themes of Banksy’s work and his anonymity, I would argue that this is an important quality for any exhibition revolving around him to have. For the same reason, viewers may also appreciate the occasional moment of levity, such as the story of a Santa at Santa’s Grotto who got extremely drunk and engaged in a series of wacky hijinks on the occasion, or that of the animal rights activist at Barely Legal who put herself in chains to protest the exhibition and was left there, as Lazarides and Banksy felt she made a good addition to the exhibition.
The exhibition also provides something of an exercise in irony, and whether this irony is intentional or not is for the viewer to decide. Quite apart from the issue of displaying street art in a gallery, even if it is in a car park and not a museum proper, the tickets are at minimum $32, and a viewer must literally exit through the gift shop at the end. Said gift shop has this quote of Banksy’s right above it: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.” For me, it was difficult to tell whether this was meant to be ironic or ironically sincere, especially since one of the previous sections focused mainly on Banksy’s anti-capitalist art.
Adding to the irony are the videos playing throughout the exhibition that discusses Lazarides and Banksy’s business practices, the mass production of Banksy’s canvases, and the fact that Banksy’s works, which were once worth around £30 are now valued in the tens of thousands of pounds, if not more. While Lazarides attempts to make a pre-emptive defence by saying that Banksy uses the money he gains to fund some of his bigger projects, such as Bethlehem and Barely Legal, one should note that this exhibition is unauthorised by Banksy, is solely the brainchild of Lazarides. One might wonder what projects Lazarides is using the money for, and whether there was indeed no animosity in his and Banksy’s parting, as he claims—the fact that he has been quoted saying that he hopes the exhibition upsets Banksy and that they’ve been ‘at loggerheads for years’ belies this statement. Either way, if the irony was intentional, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it to make it obvious; if it was unintentional, then the exhibition has entirely missed the point and is greatly weakened for it.
Overall, while the exhibition is thorough and a solid introduction to Banksy’s art, the irony of the entire affair and the suspicious absence of any real political themes in favour of other matters—many related to Steve Lazarides—do much to detract from it. For those planning to attend, there is much to learn, but I would equally advise seeking out Banksy’s art in other, more appropriate settings that are not so laced with irony. I daresay the experience would be much more rewarding this way.
What: The Art of Banksy
When: 13 September–17 November
Where: Entertainment Quarter, Building 215/1M, 122 Lang Rd, Moore Park, NSW 2021
Exhibition details here: The Art of Banksy