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Last week, an exhibit of more than 100 works by mysterious street artist Banksy opened in a Northeast Minneapolis warehouse. It’s the product of the same company that brought the much-ballyhooed “Immersive Van Gogh” experience to the same space and drew more than 200,000 visitors over more than eight months.
Everybody knows Van Gogh. But who, some may ask, is Banksy?
Well, for starters, the public doesn’t actually know the guy’s real name. In the decades since he emerged as a graffiti artist in Bristol, England, Banksy has lived and worked in the shadows, largely avoiding the media and communicating with the masses through proxies. (The general consensus in the art world is that Banksy is one Robin Gunningham, which numerous associates and former schoolmates have confirmed.)
A great way to understand Banksy is to consider the case of his most famous work, “Girl with Balloon.” The image – a stenciled work showing a young girl either reaching for or letting go of a red heart-shaped balloon – first appeared on Waterloo Bridge and other outdoor locales across London in 2002.
In the time since, Banksy has revisited and sometimes revised “Girl with Balloon” numerous times, both in public spaces and in limited-edition prints sold to the public. A 2017 poll ranked it as the United Kingdom’s favorite artwork. (The local exhibit, dubbed “The Art of Banksy,” includes two prints, one in pink and one in red.)
In 2006, Banksy gave a friend a framed, hand-painted version of “Girl with Balloon.” A dozen years later, it went up for auction at Sotheby’s London and sold at an artist-record price of $1.4 million. Seconds after the sale, a siren sounded as a mechanism inside the frame began shredding the painting into strips that fell out of the bottom. As audience members gasped and grabbed their phones it stopped abruptly, with half the painting in ribbons and the other half intact.
The prank instantly earned worldwide headlines as some wondered if Banksy himself was in the audience with a remote control that triggered the shredding process. He later released a video of a test run showing his intent was to shred the entire painting. At Sotheby’s, apparently, the mechanics failed him.
Despite some initial concerns the work’s value would plummet, it soon became apparent that would not be the case. Pest Control, the firm that handles Banksy’s work and public relations, announced the work was now called “Love Is in the Bin.” It went back up for auction last October and sold for a staggering $25.4 million.
Everything about the incident reflects aspects of Banksy’s career. It was sly, funny, destructive, surprising and, well, utterly ridiculous. It also gave a bunch of people who aren’t Banksy a nice payday – just like “The Art of Banksy” exhibit itself.
Banksy is not represented by any gallery or other art institution and only occasionally sells his work through Pest Control, which also authenticates his pieces for owners. “The Art of Banksy” – the organizers of which say its collection of more than 100 authenticated works come from private collections and are valued at more than $35 million – is not in any way authorized or endorsed by the artist.
As Pest Control puts it on its website: “Banksy has NOTHING to do with any of the current or recent exhibitions and they are nothing like a genuine Banksy show. They might be crap so please don’t come to us for a refund.”
“The Art of Banksy” is not crap. But it’s not cheap, either. Standard admission tickets are $34.99 (weekday mornings and early afternoons) and $44.99 (weekday evenings and Saturdays and Sundays). VIP tickets run as high as $99.99 with some meager additional benefits (a laminate, poster and access to a “VIP lounge” that’s a small room located off the open gathering area that leads to the exhibit itself).
Unlike “Immersive Van Gogh,” the Banksy show doesn’t transform his work into larger-than-life projections. Instead, it’s a fairly straightforward, roughly chronological walk through his career. There’s an optional audio guide and there are extensive notes and quotes plastered on the walls throughout.
In a cheeky nod to “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – Banksy’s 2010 documentary about a French street artist in Los Angeles that some have speculated is a massive hoax – the exhibit does, indeed, lead exiting viewers through an extensive gift shop with Banksy’s images on a seemingly endless array of t-shirts, posters, buttons and the like.
The merchandise, like the exhibit itself, is not authorized. As Pest Control puts it: “Banksy makes art, which generally speaking can be defined as something that didn’t exist before and that works in a specific location. Merchandise is taking one of these pieces of art and sticking it on a photo canvas or toilet roll holder. Banksy doesn’t do merchandise. So weirdly, if something looks like a ‘Banksy product’ it almost certainly isn’t.”
When I walked through “The Art of Banksy” during a preview night, I was struck by how repetitive it got by the end. The artist continually returns to the same themes, both visually and philosophically. Banksy is anti-authority, anti-monarchy, anti-police, anti-commercialism, anti-war and anti-poverty. It feels – unsettling, perhaps? – to pay for the show, get hammered with messaging essentially saying Banksy would hate all of this and then get peddled pricey merch giddily advertising his strident anti-everything rhetoric.
One of the strongest allures of Banksy is the inherent mystery behind the man. But one can’t help but take a much more complicated view of the artist after experiencing “The Art of Banksy.”
Organizers seem to enjoy telling reporters that Banksy himself could show up to view the exhibit and that no one would be the wiser. In the unlikely event that happens in Minneapolis, I hope he plucks a piece or two off the wall and quickly exits with them through the gift shop.
‘The Art of Banksy’
When: Thursday-Sunday, with tickets currently available through the end of June
Where: Lighthouse ArtSpace Minneapolis, 1515 Central Ave. N.E.
Tickets: $44.99-$34.99, with VIP options available, via banksyexhibit.com/minneapolis