Graffiti artist Banksy has a new London exhibition…
A hoodie/grim reaper self-harming and the council worker cleaning off cave paintings. It’s got to be the artwork of Banksy! Holly Kirkwood takes a look at how graffiti artist Banksy came to be the latest darling of the art world, and wonders if graffiti can make the transition from pavement to art gallery.
Bansky, Banksy, Banksy. When I moved to London nearly ten years ago I didn’t know who he was; can you imagine that? I soon found out, though: a couple of walks along the south bank of the Thames set me straight and since then the elusive man’s profile has continued to rise to seemingly impossible heights for someone who, at best guess, is a crusty ex-raver from the West Country.
But what a hero the man is now! Switching from subversive to extremely lucrative is difficult to do whilst retaining your credibility, but when you comes from the street so literally, and the comments your work makes are more irascible than anything seen in official galleries for decades, then I guess you’re allowed. The peak of which was surely getting the ever well-meaning Brad Pitt and Ms Jolie to fork out for his stuff at a US exhibition last year. Celebrity endorsement is surely low on Banksy’s list of priorities, but for a man who understands how skewed modern values can be, relieving some well-off people of a considerable amount of cash is practically Robin Hood-esque.
Banksy’s latest high profile work was included in London’s Cans festival. Held over the May Bank Holiday along an obscure tunnel near Waterloo in London it featured street artists from all over the world.
Over 40 street artists were invited to take part and the result was a fascinating display of talents of wildly varying wattage. One of the first eyecatching pieces was an enormous picture of the current Pope in classic Monroe pose over the airvents, his robes up around his waist. It’s an arresting image, and it works perfectly as street art: witty, subversive and instantly understandable.
Other pieces are fun, and I’m sure repeat visits will be rewarded: An Audrey Hepburn as Holly go Lightly being attacked by her cat, Boris Johnson as interpreted by a Dutch artist and some interesting urban sculptures involving smashed up cars, CCTV and children’s playground equipment (there to be used, as far as we could see).
Of course, the pin-up boy’s pieces were the largest draw – and the cause of the weekend-long crowds queuing up to get in. And they are great: a hoodie/grim reaper self-harming and the council worker cleaning off cave paintings are Banksy classics. But here’s the rub: Banksy putting his own accomplished work next to up-and-coming artists could have a bad as well as a beneficial effect. Much of the art struggles to stand out with the kind of individual voice and style Banksy has and having so much crammed together makes it awfully easy to see everything as a hotch potch of ideas rather than anything which has been wilfully thought through. And if this is the impression we were intended to get then all well and good, but it won’t change any of my perceptions about what this medium is about.
Street art needs to have charm, and some of the cheeky chappy about it which Banksy’s work has, whether he’s tackling petty crime in Hackney or the problems in the Middle East. I came away feeling like a group of hard-drinking dreadlocked men with spray cans does not a movement make.
However, it seems the TATE begs to differ. Some of the artists in the Cans festival also feature in the first commission to use TATE Modern’s iconic river façade, and the first major public museum display of street art in London. Blu from Bologna, Italy; the artist collective Faile from New York, USA; JR from Paris, France; Nunca and Os Gemeos, both from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Sixeart from Barcelona are all be allowed to transform the front of the building as they choose, and there will also be street art tours so you can see street art in its intended environment.
Art is about fashion as much as it is about talent and it seems to me that, like any of these moments, most of what follows will be crap but some will be gold. But I think it’s important to remember that graffiti isn’t art because it doesn’t want to be art; it’s willingly something else and TATE has a responsibility not just to jump onto a bandwagon but instead to eke out the distinctions between different forms of expression.
This last pic isn’t a Banksy piece – but it is from the Cans festival. Street art, we heart you xxx