In the unlikely location of a sweet shop in Frankfurt, I went to see the Banksy Without Limits Art Exhibition. Banksy the graffiti artist, film director and political activist is famous for his searing art attacks on State and powers of authority.
Banksy started as a graffiti artist in 1990’s Brighton though nobody appears to know where he is from and his real name is disputed. By cutting out stencils in advance his graffiti work could be produced more quickly than loose spray painting, allowing him to escape arrest. The stencilling technique became the Banksy signature style. Dots, streaks, dashes, curves, splurges arranged together in groups that look neat from afar. Close up they look more like bullet holes, blood splatters and drips at a crime scene, the embodiment of Banksy’s artistic voice. This is the look that set him apart from the clean neat lines of poster art and the loose spray styles of other graffiti artists. Banksy doesn’t want you to feel too clean or neat, he wants discomfort from you and he gets it.
On entering the exhibit you begin in a zone of black and white cardboard named ‘Dismaland’ where some of his smaller works are displayed. A one dollar bill with George Washington’s image replaced with an image of Christ on the cross. A recognised image, Jesus with his arms spread, head encircled with thorns, eyes submissively dropped, body near death. Except the Banksy Jesus is holding, of all things, shopping bags. A controversial commentary on consumerism and the monetisation of everything including religious holidays. Banksy is saying our desire for material things, at any cost, is something we are prepared to die for, or more uncomfortably let others suffer to produce.
Dismaland a swipe at iconic American brand Disneyland, is a clear attack on what Banksy sees as a deterioration of the United States and the American dream. Disneyland, the embodiment of childhood fairytales, the happy playground of innocence, is presented in a dystopian form. Now it’s a place where dreams come to stagnate and die surrounded by rusty immobile machinery. Items that were once merry go rounds and big wheels freely lifting people higher, are now immobile in a cemetery of dreams.
This is a provocative exhibition, with much to reflect upon for those not easily offended.
Moving on from the USA, exhibit pieces get larger but just as pointed. One piece is the Union Jack stab vest famously worn by Stormzy at Glastonbury 2019, where Stromzy encouraged the crowd to chant “F..k Boris”. The Union Jack once a proud symbol on a dress worn by Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, is now a tattered Union Jack on an item of self defence worn by a black artist. The Union Jack is Banksy’s emblem for a country swallowed in debate about Brexit, inner city violence, racism, police violence, and confused national identity. The faded tattered vest is the perfect example of a consistent artistic voice. That voice is a rebellious social justice warrior, angry at the state. Think less cool Britannia more cruel Britannia and you understand Banksy.
Perhaps the most emotional part of the exhibit was the section dedicated to the war in Ukraine. Anticipating that guests would feel emotional, chairs were arranged in corner spaces to allow visitors time to sit and reflect.
Broken walls, a bomb, a figure with gas mask, cracks. Out of the rubble a young ribbon gymnast rises into an defiant pose and a child in a Judo outfit is trying to catch a falling man in a black belt Judo outfit. Banksy is saying the children of Ukraine won’t forget what has happened to their world. One day that child trying to catch the adult will be a black belt in Judo too. At the same time on the opposite wall sprayed in blood red paint is “There is always hope” the defiant elegant gymnast positioned directly opposite.
Then there is the curtained room. Now you’ve looked at what exists outside, Banksy says come here and examine what is inside. Behind the curtain, perhaps a symbol of our outer self, visitors are suddenly inside a mirrored cube. Mirrors everywhere, seeing yourself from every possible angle, uncomfortable in itself ( is that how my hair looks from the back? ) one is confronted with ones own imperfect body. Then peace symbols, doves with targets on them, flags, soldiers, protesters, drop around you like postcards on the mirrors. The artist is asking us to look inside and query what is my place in all this pain? One is literally standing directly in the middle of it.
After the room of self examination comes is a section of art surrounded by printed hearts. With the problems of the world and self unpacked, Banksy presents some solutions, though not without a few jibes. Playing on a screen is the story of Banksy buying a yacht and using it to transport migrants. A defiant two fingers to the hypocrisy of a world that lets those with money and freedom go where they wish, yet struggles to understand anyone else. If you pull the wings off a butterfly it becomes something more similar to a worm. We love the butterfly but lets please leave the worms in the ground unseen where they belong. Snobbery, oppressive power constructions, hypocrisy, is what is being said here. Talking of worms and winged things, another artwork has birds holding anti migrant slogans. “Migrants not welcome” “ Keep off our worms” say the birds. We know birds are migratory, we allow that says Banksy, but what if they took the same attitude as humans, what then? Banksy has us asking a lot of questions.
Outside the exhibition some Banksy art is on pillars in the street and other artists have scrawled their own feelings about his art. “Sell out” “Banksy is a fake” are some of the messages. Whether deliberate by Banksy himself or the outcry from artists who no longer see him as ‘one of us’ but ‘one of them’, is unclear. But the more significant point is his keeping the discomfort and anger towards injustice alive, passing the torch on.
With these thoughts ruminating I walk to a local cafe and just as my chicken salad and chardonnay arrive so does a huge downpour. Ironically a British bulldog, alarmed by the sudden weather change, starts barking at everyone while servers rush around making us comfortable under patio umbrellas. The irony of the scene holds fast in my mind. Sudden change is alarming and troubling not only for British bulldogs. Then suddenly a gust of wind blows over and shatters my wine glass. I laugh inwardly, is the Banksy spirit blowing at me saying ‘ you there in comfortable life, sipping your wine, in your ivory tower, you’re part of this problem. Don’t you see it?
“I consider what my own contribution could be to a better world, and feel inadequate. As I help the waitress collect the glass shards, trying not to get cut and create my own Banksy blood spatter pavement art, I look up and notice the store in front of me is called “Re:Create”. Is this Banksy’s parting shot to me? a notice that it’s time to recreate what we have into something else?