By Chloe Pingeon
When you go to the Art of Banksy website, it’s immediately clear that Banksy himself has nothing to do with this traveling show.
The signs started to appear in October. Perhaps you first saw them on a passing billboard while driving on I-95. Perhaps you noticed a splatter of red and white stuck to the side of a Newbury Street bin and stopped to take a second look. Maybe it was a flash of sponsored content as you scroll through your iPhone. I first saw the sign on Instagram. After that, I started seeing him everywhere. “BANKSY’S ART” the sign reads, splashed in white bubble letters on a red sphere, “PRIVATE COLLECTION NOT AUTHORIZED”.
For anyone who has ever heard of Banksy, and perhaps especially for those who haven’t, the sign is intriguing. A mysterious artist performs an unauthorized show at an undisclosed location. Tickets are not yet available for purchase. The signs announce something – but what? And who funds it? Perhaps Banksy himself is behind the montage, given that he rose to fame as an anonymous artist who is also a prankster and political activist who pulls off stunts just like that. Here are some examples. Banksy once auctioned off a painting for $1.4 million which, unbeknownst to the buyer, had been designed to self-destruct upon purchase. The shredded pieces of the artwork were later auctioned off for $24 million. He built a dystopian amusement park in a British town called “Dismaland”. The artist’s involvement as well as the construction of the park were kept entirely secret until the day of the opening. Banksy has filled a London exhibition of his art with over 200 live rats. According to a girl on TikTok, Banksy scattered his artwork in an abandoned subway station. Lucky passers-by could pick them up for the bargain price of r$60 each. The TikTok user’s claim is dubious, but again, so is every Banksy story circulating the internet and in casual conversations. Banksy’s appeal is his secrecy, his bold statements, his elaborate performances and the haze of secrecy that shrouds his stunts. Apart from some vague rumors that he once played in a British rugby team, Banksy’s identity is unknown. Establishing with certainty what he did, what he is doing, and what he will do next is impossible.
But when you go to the Art of Banksy website, it’s immediately clear that Banksy himself has nothing to do with this traveling show. The webpage features a flashing call for “INFLUENCERS WANTED” and a disclaimer that “tickets are on sale NOW for $50.” This show may be a show, but it’s also a jerk. Yet people react passionately to counterfeiting. The paintings of Banksy that the girl on TikTok claims to have discovered on a train platform in New York were probably not authentic, but her voice shook as she told the camera that she could not remember the last time that she was also excited. Street performers, especially the work of an artist who once posted a live elephant in an exhibit at an official event in protest against global poverty, are using the show to make a political point in many different contexts, commercial or not. The show’s outrageously high ticket prices ($70 for prime time; $50 if you’re lucky) would seem to contradict the anti-capitalist critiques presented by Banksy’s work. But the art world is notoriously elitist: exclusivity and equality must clash. After all, Banksy himself proclaimed that “we can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism collapses. In the meantime, we should all go shopping for consolation. To say that a Banksy show is too expensive would be to write off Banksy altogether as an artist. Selling a $1.4 million painting that should self-destruct upon purchase is a very costly capitalist spectacle.
Upon purchasing a ticket for the Art of Banksy Show (Boston), I immediately received an email from THE UNIVERSE. The undisclosed venue for the show is 12 Palmer St Cambridge – a relatively normal-looking building in an alleyway off Harvard Square. The doors to the building were painted the same red and white colors I had grown accustomed to seeing around Boston and on social media. I entered a dimly lit building and made my way to the ticket office. There I was offered a program (available for purchase for $20) and an audio tour (available for purchase for $20). I gave up those two luxuries and walked through the dimly lit lobby and up a fluorescent red escalator into the exhibit itself.
The show is made up of 11 rooms, but the spaces appear to be constructed from temporary black walls that have been stitched together to create the illusion of a maze. The floors are lined with a dark gray carpet that hasn’t been cleaned of white paint splatters. Soft elevator music is playing, but there doesn’t seem to be a set playlist, because every few minutes the same Planet Fitness commercial disrupts the soundtrack.
“Start making your workouts worth it!” The chipper woman’s voice drifting through the makeshift gallery space is somewhat depressing.
The show opens with a brief history of Banksy. There are a few black-edged picture frames hanging on a black wall, the first holding a woven mat that spells out, in red fabric, “WELCOME”. The second frame is titled “STICKERS” and contains, shockingly enough, a display of stickers. It is unclear whether the stickers were created by Banksy or simply placed in the frame as a testament to the artist and his work. Below the frame is a brief description of “BRISTOL”, the town where Banksy is said to have grown up. The description also explains that we are shown stickers because Banksy often marked his work area with them. The meaning of these particular stickers is not specified. Looks like these squares of white and red have been lazily taped onto black construction paper and then glued to the wall. More depression.
The rest of the show sticks to the same mundane track. Each room features a Banksy quote painted on the walls, a brief history lesson, and a few artifacts that apparently belonged to Banksy. But in this dimly lit and catastrophically organized setting, claims of authenticity are implausible. Curation is not always a necessity for the show. Some pieces speak for themselves. But Banksy’s work is notoriously site-specific. It is celebrated because it speaks, often critically and mischievously, about the time and place where art was set. Throwing a few Banksy pieces on a wall next to some historical facts goes against the spirit of this artist’s work – there’s no coherent story being told about anything here.
A group of high school kids making TikToks in early theaters seemed interested in the show. Other people I met seemed bored. Few visitors bothered to stop to read the information plaques on the wall. Most took a few photos of the glass frames, already warped and smeared with fingerprints, before continuing on their way.
In one of the last rooms, I found myself alone and in front of a glass cage containing one of Banksy’s most infamous sketches: “Balloon Girl”. In this drawing, we see a child dressed in a black and white dress, one arm outstretched in front of her. She releases a red heart-shaped balloon into a white sky. The red of the balloon is the only color present on the canvas. Banksy used this image as graffiti in public places – a way to leave his mark. On this show, the frame of the picture asked the viewer to walk to the other side. The page contains a face sketch, an image of Ben Einer, a friend of Banksy whom the artist spontaneously sketched one day while they were chatting in a restaurant. It was the first and only time the exhibition surprised me. My first reaction was excitement: I was in the presence of an iconic image, which was probably worth huge sums of money. Yet on the back of the image, an impulsive portrait of Banksy’s good pal suggested something more spontaneous, authentic and human. Banksy is, in many ways, an artist. To live your work at its best is to be part of a drama. This double-sided drawing provided the only Banksy moment of the show.
And this drawing underscored why the show is fake, essentially a gimmick. Banksy’s work is not meant to be displayed in the conventional way, especially in a dimly lit commercial venue with exorbitantly priced tickets. The exhibition is not a con because it is a spectacle, but because it is do not a dazzling spectacle. Banksy’s job requires 200 rats to be released into a live room. His power as an artist is that of spontaneity, of art which self-destructs and is worth twenty times more once reassembled.
Despite bad faith presentations like this, Banksy hasn’t lost his sense of humor – and his outrage. On the artist’s real site, officially named Pest Control, part of the Q&A section deals with the rise of Banksy pop-ups.
“Banksy has NOTHING to do with any of the current or recent exhibits and they look nothing like an actual Banksy show. They might be crap, so please don’t come and ask us for a refund.
Chloe Penguin is a rising senior at Boston College studying film and journalism. She wrote regularly for the articles and arts section of Boston College’s independent student newspaper. Heightsand also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.