Author: Marina Valcárcel
We are here for what could arguably be called the retrospective of an unknown artist. The Terzo Pilastro Foundation in Rome is showing the largest exhibition to date of a certain Banksy, the faceless star of Street Art. A pseudonym for a rebel artist whose incisive, sometimes ironic and irreverent work, questions and denounces the political and social mores of our time. A short distance away from the Cipolla Palace where the exhibition is being held, in another palace on the Vía del Corso, hangs Velázquez's "Portrait Of Pope Innocent X"; we can only imagine wryly his thoughts, more amazed than ever, watching the endless queues wind past the canvas: 15,000 entrance tickets sold in the first fortnight. What would Velázquez think of this graffiti artist who dared to depict a Christ similar to his own but whose outstretched hands, instead of being nailed to the cross, are holding aloft shopping bags stuffed full of gifts, sweets and champagne?
"War, Capitalism And Liberty" is the title of this exhibit that encapsulates three of the main concerns tackled in the discourse of this instigator of a brand new type of engagement, one that is more astute, more intelligent and double-edged, all essential qualities in today's world. His anti-materialist, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment skits have spread like wildfire, particularly amongst the young. Banksy is not just a graffiti artist but a thinker. His campaign of action, far-reaching and sustained, would be on a par with the best Secret Service strategies. Between 1992 and1994 his work, but not he, was to be found in each and every one of the places his audience looked for him.
First gallery, first wow factor: in the same way that his "Love Is In The Air" (Flower Thrower), that emotive graffiti picture of a 21st century "Discobulus of Myron", in which a young boy in full flight, his face hidden under a handkerchief and baseball cap on backwards, throws what one would expect to be a molotov cocktail but is, in fact, a bunch of flowers ….. the exhibition kicks off with a similar punch. It's a message from Banksy that could just as well be a gas canister: or a petrol bomb: "I like to think that I have sufficient courage to reclaim, anonymously, in a Western democracy, the things that nobody believes in anymore ~ peace, justice and liberty." And after this quote, highlighted against a jet black background, come 150 of his works, dated 1998 to 2011 and all belonging to private collections, spread over ten rooms. The curators have pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that Banksy had absolutely no involvement in the organising of this exhibition.
According to popular myth, Banksy, born in Bristol, perhaps in 1974, would be around 40 and recently married to a Labour MP. He is, therefore, a good 8 or 10 years younger than those other two revolutionaries on the British art scene: Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. His anonymity is arguably the key to his success. But there's a big question raised by this exhibition, already asked and unanswered since his 2009 Bristol show. Will Banksy move from being the guy who painted on inner-city street walls in provincial UK cities, to being a painter of canvasses that hang in grand European museums or in galleries frequented by the likes of Tom Cruise, Cristina Aguilera and Angelina Jolie, all willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them? Arcoris Andipa, a curator of the exhibition and the Greek gallery owner settled in London who has sold more of Banksy's work than anyone else, claims: "His success lies in the intelligence of the messages in his work."
Perhaps before Banksy there was little possibility of graffiti being accepted as art. Even so, in today's world, the limitation lines are blurred. One could wonder at the dearth of books on the subject of Urban Art compared with the proliferation of images, usually without any accompanying text, posted on artists' websites and social media. For this reason, let's look briefly at the two tendencies in Street Art: graffiti and post-graffiti. Graffiti, first seen in Philadelphia in 1959, is a popular tradition throughout the Western world whereby street gangs mark out their territory and achieve fame by spraying or writing their names or other slogans on walls or any available surface throughout the city with aerosol paints and felt-tip pens. In 1970's New York, this extended to railway carriages in the subway. Keith Haring describes it thus: "I arrived in New York at a time when the most beautiful paintings on display in the city were on train wheels. Paintings that travelled to you rather than the other way round."
Postgraffiti, on the other hand, to which artists from Basquiat to Banksy belonged and started in New York in the 1980's, is graffic and very rarely textual. They are images that seek to engage passers-by in a dialogue between artist and spectator, a sort of intimate connection in a public space. They invite us to participate, to marvel on every street corner or wall at the message left, the critique drawn, the authorship signed. They want us to recognise their style and become fans of it. They want to leave their footprint. Postgraffiti emerged from the confluence of academic art, principally pop, and various forms of urban culture, namely graffiti proper, punk rock and skate. It could be defined as a self-promotion campaign with no financial gain to be had and in which the artist has total freedom. Graffiti artists fit a very narrow profile: always young, always men, the majority of them design or fine art students who substitute stencils, stickers or free-hand painting for aerosol sprays. Their uniform is the 'hoodie' - to hide their identities - and trainers, to get away quickly. They all grew up in the internet age and this is their means and method of injecting their art into the veins of the world.
Every piece of art looks strangely out of place if we remove it from the place it was originally destined for. We are in the city of Caravaggio and contemplating his "Calling Of St Matthew" which does not look the same, up close in the gentle light of the Contarelli Chapel, as it would on a cold museum wall. And it's notable that this effect is multiplied exponentially with Banksy. In the Cipolla Palace, his pictures and lithographs lack the force that a portion of wall "borrowed" from the street would afford them. They have little in common with the emotional response to the little girl trying to fly out of the Gaza Strip on a fistful of balloons or the late Steve Jobs painted as a Syrian immigrant in Calais. Part of the charm of urban art is its transitory nature, the feeling that its lifespan is dictated by vandals or the police. So here, neatly ordered and reproduced in series, the magic of its fragility, its creation in the night-time, in the light of a streetlamp and the instability of a stroll are all but lost. This was the internal debate Banksy pushed us to. Graffiti is a form of guerrilla warfare. It's a way of stealing power, territory and glory from a more heavily-armed enemy. Banksy once called it "a form of revenge". All of this is lost beneath the protective domes of a palace in Rome.
It is estimated that there are more than 140 places around the world where Banksy carried out his work. This exhibition allows us a unique journey: to unravel some of the enigma of Banksy without having to trek all the way from Israel to New Orleans.
War, Capitalism And Liberty
Terzo Pilastro Foundation, Cipolla Palace, Vía del Corso 320, Rome
Curators: Stefano Antonelli, Francesca Mezzano and Arcoris Andipa Until 4 September 2016
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)