Banksy, the Exhibitionist
Walking the streets of Amsterdam from the Red Light district to the southern canals, one repeatedly encounters a bright pink poster on which a black rat yields a paintbrush. The internet generation, those born in the late eighties and nineties, likely recognizes this image and its artist. We respond to the pink rat poster with the thought: “Ah, Banksy. Wait, Banksy?” The image clearly belongs to the internet-famous British graffiti artist, filmmaker, and political activist who shields his true identity with the stage name “Banksy.” His graffiti can be found on the sides of buildings in cities from London, to Timbuktu, to Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York. However, it's possible to see almost all of his creations simply browsing Facebook, Pinterest, or Tumblr. His iconic and bold designs, preaching peace, preservation of hope and innocence, and commenting on hot controversies such as police brutality and gay rights, became incredibly popular within the last ten years due to the many posts and shares on the internet. Even American pop sensation Justin Bieber sports a tattoo of Banksy's “There’s Always Hope” balloon girl. So why is it jarring to see his paintbrush rat on a bright pink poster in cafes and on street corners in Amsterdam?
The poster advertises one of the two current Banksy exhibits in Amsterdam, the first featuring the art of Banksy alone, and the second featuring both Banksy and Warhol. And this is the unsettling bit: to those familiar with Banksy’s internet identity, it feels unbecoming for the artist to feature his work in exhibitions for which one has to pay an entrance fee. The Banksy with whom we are familiar should care more about the message of his artwork and the thought it provokes. Why would he commercialize and minimize his artwork to the constraints of a museum or gallery? Yet, in this question lies the crux of the issue, which also serves as Banksy’s main appeal. Because Banksy maintains complete anonymity as an artist, his exhibits entice Amsterdammers not only with the chance to see his works, but also with the chance to further dissolve the enigma that is Banksy.
In this day and age, there are very few remaining mysteries. Thanks to the advancements of science in furthering discovery, and technology in disseminating information, anyone with access to the internet can answer almost any question with a quick Google search. Our modern culture also rewards those who reveal and promote their identities, which is especially necessary for public figures aiming to impact the masses or rise to positions of leadership. One would be hard pressed to find a musician without his or her own Youtube and Soundcloud accounts, or a political campaigner without his or her own Twitter feed. The internet generation quickly grows frustrated if there is a dearth of information to fulfill constant curiosities. This is exactly what makes Banksy so enticing: he rarely gives us any clues as to the basic shape of his identity. In Moco’s Banksy: Laugh Now exhibit, two of his works directly exploit this attraction. Printed on the same wall on which his painted-over “found” oil pieces hang, the exhibit quotes the artist: “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is their superpower.” It is theorized that Banksy hides his identity because graffiti in most cases is illegal, but he quickly realized that anonymity provides more than an escape from the law. In the Moco gift shop, one can purchase a “Banksy Disguise Kit,” inspired by a picture Banksy supplied of himself to Time Magazine for his nomination as one of the most influential people in 2010. The “kit” is a paper bag on which a cartoon face is drawn, meant to be worn over one’s face. In the picture, Banksy also wears a long-sleeve shirt and folds his arms across his chest, hiding his hands under his arms so one cannot even see his race. The city itself is itching with curiosity: on the wall of a residential alleyway in the red light district, a blue floral emblem poses the question, “Who the fuck is Banksy?” From the internet posts and the sides of buildings, the public perceives the artist as a defiant, yet comically talented graffiti artist who cares about the world and protecting its goodness and purity. Yet, these exhibits reveal that there may be a little more, or perhaps, a little less to the artist.
Moco’s Banksy: Laugh Now exhibit is especially contradictory to the public perception of Banksy as merely a graffiti artist. Within this museum, which is a refurbished mansion on the same street as the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, Banksy’s pieces are framed and hung on the wall as if they are the prized portraits of the mansion’s family’s ancestors. They hang over the mantle of the home, in between the two panels of stained glass windows at the top of the staircase, and against the backdrop of the old dining room. It’s quite jarring to see such bold, stylized images against such a domestic and gilded backdrop. Further, as with any museum, almost half the pieces were paired with explanatory placards, offering bite-sized syntheses of his pieces. These placards oversimplify the brilliance and nuance of many of Banksy’s works, diluting the dissonance created through his pairing symbols of innocence (children, flowers, balloons, animals) with symbols of violence (police vests, bombs, guns, and other weaponry), or his ironic alterations of the British 100 pound note, or “found” oil paintings. Some of his works are so clearly printed to be sold, at first it seems as though they are counterfeit. Moco expects this suspicion and offers a placard explaining that while most people assume Banksy only works as a graffiti artist, he also creates prints and paintings for private collectors. However, the exhibit also proudly offers a few of his original graffitied walls, presented as rounded chunks of concrete displayed on custom rounded stands, as if originally sculpted for interior display. The more one wanders through the rooms of the exhibit, the more Banksy begins to resemble just another graphic artist with bold ideas and an even bolder aesthetic. Another graphic artist, similar to the likes of the very artist featured in the basement of the exhibit.
Down the stairs of the old mansion that is the Moco Museum, one is immediately confronted with the similarity between Banksy and Warhol’s work. Warhol’s most iconic image, the Campbell’s soup can, is hung to the left of a Banksy soup can boasting the same style, but a very different message. While Warhol is credited for illustrating the excitement surrounding economic prosperity and the abundance commercialized goods, Banksy offers his version to suggest that this consumerism is starting to poison our culture and society, targeting one of Britain’s corporate giants, Tesco. Further correlations are seen through Banksy’s rendition of Warhol’s colorful Marilyn Monroe portraits, altered to the face of Kate Moss, and hung within direct view of Warhol’s original. Pairing Banksy with Warhol achieves two things: it immediately reveals Warhol’s artistic influence on Banksy’s own work, and it suggests the similarities between the intentions and public positioning of the two revolutionary artists. Both artists juxtapose iconic figures or images against unexpected and often jarring images or styles to produce a healthy questioning and reconsideration of things to which the public is familiar. However, while the internet generation considers Warhol an “exhibit” artist, expecting his works in larger museums across the world, we are not yet comfortable with the idea that Banksy has joined these ranks. Experiencing Banksy’s images framed and displayed indoors after paying an entrance fee clashes with the popular perception of the activist-artist. Street art doesn’t offer any monetary profit, especially if the artist remains anonymous, which makes the messages of Banksy’s images richer and louder. Packaging these images neatly into traveling exhibits and collectible works reduces the volume of Banksy’s voice, making him less V for Vendetta and more, well, normal. Human. Regular. Insignificant, even.
While it’s fascinating to see Banksy’s ideas and works up close, Banksy as an exhibit, especially at Amsterdam’s Moco Museum, reduces Banksy’s persona and the magic of his anonymity to that of any other relatively famous artist. It normalizes his identity, rather than mystifying his image, and overloads the public with a proximity to his work and self that we so desired because it had been withheld for so long. While the art itself is just as incredible as if it were to appear on the side of a building in London, it loses so much of the magic of Banksy in exhibition form.