Banksy, Napalm, 2004, Screenprint on untreated cartridge paper, courtesy Schoeni Art Gallery, HK
Banksy Does HK
Banksy: The World's Most Controversial Street and Stencil Artist
Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong
April 29 through May 13, 2008
The show is titled "Bansky – The World's Most Controversial Street and Stencil Artist". You know P.T. Barnum is giving a post-mortem thumbs-up. The press release goes on to dub Banksy "undoubtedly the world's most famous street and stencil artist of our time" and compare him to Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. Cue the inevitable debate. When Banksy's name came up during a discussion on street art, my colleague swigged his beer resignedly and grumbled, "Yeah, Banksy. He sold out." Collectors and marketers have been taking street art out of its natural habitat for decades now. An impossibly hip cache has allowed many graffiti artists to transition from Krylon to commercial: Fafi for Adidas, Fornarina by Miss Van, Kaws for Bape. It's a mutual trade that allows big brands to mine the visual language of subculture, tap into a new market and bump their street cred. For artists, these projects increase the visibility and accessibility of their work. One sketch can be translated into millions of handbags scattered across the globe.
Yet Banksy, who has aggressively avoided marketing himself beyond a book and whose online shop contains downloadable freebie art, has managed to rise to pop stardom with a smashing solo show in 2006 in Los Angeles. He's dodged the pigeonholing that dogs his peers and lumps them under the umbrella of lowbrow illustrative art. He's managed to keep his true identity, face included, a mystery. In February of this year, the sale of a collaborative piece between Banksy and Damien Hirst set a new record for the artist, fetching 1.87 million USD. Banksy defaced one of Hirst's spot paintings with a lovely maid poetically sweeping under the canvas, Bono co-organized the auction. The universal appeal of his work lies in a wicked visual vocabulary. He draws heavily from pop culture, favoring recognizability over hyper-stylizing: Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse, and the Queen all make an appearance. He puts sweet little-girl bows on a troupe of army helicopters and dispatches legions of monkeys sporting painted slogans like "Keep it Real". His signature rats hold up protest signs, pour toxic waste and tag up walls wearing maddening rodent sneers.
The other key element in his work is site-specificity. Banksy regularly seeks out areas of high-visibility, using pre-existing space engineered to be noticed like billboards, blank walls and placardsXXX. He put up his own art, a smiley-faced Mona Lisa, in the Louvre. He used a blank wall to draw attention to the CCTV surveillance camera beside it. He's changed signs in public lakes, put blow-up dolls in Disney and installed paintings on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier. In this sly way, Banksy's work not only integrates into the landscape but dialogs with it, providing commentary about police states and the hypocrisy of the establishment. His pieces are reminders that defacing property is by nature an act of resistance, not just a by-product of urban economics.
That gritty punch is mostly absent in the show at Schoeni, Banksy's first solo exhibition in Hong Kong. The walls are pristine and the piece tags use a perfect version of Banksy's stencil signature. The surprise that comes with recognizing a Banksy piece grinning up from a crusty sewer grate is missing. Pieces like Riot Copper and the Laugh Now series, left over from the 2002 Existencilism after-show where Banksy tagged up the exhibition space, are mounted in elegant black wood frames. The little rat punks are represented in a series of screenprints, nicely-matted and signed by the artist.
It's very weird to see Banksy's (supposed) handwriting for the first time.
Then there are the pieces that do comment on the gallery setting. His Kate series features The World's Most Controversial Runway and Print Model of our times wearing the hair, beauty mark and pop hues of Warhol's Marilyn prints. A screenprint entitled Morons lambasts the art market with the painting on the auction block reading "I can't believe you morons actually buy this shit" - and how they buy! Dots appeared rapidly as soon as the doors opened to the public. Right beside it, Di-Faced Tenners displays Banksy-created notes featuring Princess Di's face and reading "Banksy of England" and "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the ultimate price" next to ten pound notes. Gangsta Rat consists of Banksy's boombox-toting rat sprayed on a metal lock box, originally stationed outside the Supreme General Store in London. The hardy box is displayed under a plexiglass case, still pasted with a poster for Mel Brooks' The Producers. It's not Duchamp, it's practical.
For the most part, Banksy's sharp-as-knives imagery manages to work well in sterilized white space. The prints have retained the grungy lines of sprayed stencils and pieces like Napalm, a screenprint of Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse holding the hands of the famous Vietnamese napalm girl, are acerbic as ever. Still, it's hard not to feel silly reading the posted description for Heavy Weaponry: "This later version of Heavy Weaponry illustrates a more sophisticated stenciling technique. Compared to Heavy Weaponry (London, New York, Bristol) there is an increased amount of stenciled detail that realistically depicts a moving elephant."
Say what you will, the man's caustic wit (his book features a quote from the Metropolitan police, "There's no way you're going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover.") comes through in the show, whether he intended it or not. With its retch-worthy smug title, a highly-successful opening complete with police guards holding riot shields and batons (not a PR stunt but a security measure, though they did pose for photographs with the enthusiastic crowd), a guest list to get in and plenty of black-clad collector types cutting the typical hip-cocked connoisseur's silhouette everywhere you looked, it's not hard to imagine that somewhere Banksy is having a good chuckle. Perhaps he's in the Caribbean rolling around naked on a bed of notes after a long soak in a tub of Cristal. He could be phoning his broker with an order. Or maybe he's climbing scaffolding in a black hoodie with a can of paint and a sawed-off brush tucked in his pocket, ever the poster boy for street artists everywhere. Does it really matter? At the end of the day, success means more cash for paint, X-acto knives and posting bail.
And isn't that what every great artist aspires to?