About Laughter and Forgettingby Sean O'Toole / 26.06.2009
It is probably apt that Banksy, arguably street art’s most famous name, decided to include his collaboration with Damien Hirst in “Banksy versus Bristol Museum,” a sprawling exhibition currently on show in his hometown of Bristol. Like Hirst, Banksy has devolved into a tactically shrewd self-promoter content with cannibalising his own repertoire. Of course, this is what artists do, even the great ones. They find a satisfying hook and pursue it to the nth degree. Think of Bacon and the many portraits he made of his lover George Dyer, or Basquiat and his habit of ceaselessly re-presenting his cartoonish alter ego, all spiky and strung out on junk. And then there’s Hirst, who’s been painting spots since the late 1980s.
Last year August, shortly before a two-day sale of Hirst’s work by auction house Sotheby’s grossed £111 million, the undisputed king of Brit art announced he would stop making his spot paintings. The art world breathed a sigh of relief. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 in circulation, two of which have been vandalised by Banksy. Vandalised is possibly the wrong word, intervened is closer the truth.
Amongst the treasure trove of Banksy pieces on show at Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery is a Hirst spot painting. The work features Banksy’s trademark rat covering over the spots with the dull grey wall paint used by authorities to conceal urban graffiti. The work is cheekily titled ‘Improved Spot Painting’. Tellingly, it is credited to Hirst and Banksy, the latter simply designated as “local artist” in the wall text. (It could just as easily have read “two local artists”, Hirst also born in Bristol.)
This pairing isn’t the only group effort, Banksy collaborating with his hometown’s foremost cultural institution, a three storey Edwardian building that shares many similarities with Pretoria’s natural history museum, for his exhibition. The exhibition, which includes original and improvised paintings, animatronics and wayward sidebars such as a vandalised trio of portable toilets topped off with a stuffed crow clutching a used tampon, has drawn huge crowds to Bristol, a bucolic West Country town that nurtured talents such as Tricky, Massive Attack and Portishead.
Of interest, in a 2008 Daily Mail article that claimed to unmask the anonymous artist, Banksy, whose real name is said to be Robin Gunningham, credits Massive Attack’s 3D as a formative influence. “I think he’d been to New York and was the first to bring spray painting back to Bristol. I grew up seeing spray paint on the streets way before I ever saw it in a magazine or on a computer.”
This is the thing. Banksy’s fame owes as much to the viral logic of the internet as it does his uptake by jilted Hoxton hipsters in the early noughts. The benefit of being one of the latter, a Shoreditch twat in local vernacular, is the experience of seeing his art firsthand, not vicariously through some or other enthusiast’s blog. The same holds true of his current exhibition. Reading the pre-opening press, which included an interview with Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak, hype soon overtook fact.
Conceptually, Banksy is funny, brilliant even at times, but he is no virtuoso with the paintbrush. In fact, he paints like a Sunday painter, precisely and without vigour. After one view his paintings also offer very little. Once you know the punch line there’s nothing left to look at. Disappointing. Not really, his exhibition is packed with silly and diverting entertainment, especially the caged animals in the rear atrium. But like so many good jokes well told, it is the memory of laughter that stays with you afterwards, not the source of it.