Banksy in Moscow: genius, vandal or what the hell?

‘Ooooh, is Banksy in Moscow?’ asked Mama on seeing a friend’s Facebook post a month or two back.

Banksy at the Central House of Artists Moscow exhibition

As it turned out, it wasn’t the British graffiti artist Banksy himself on display in Moscow but a number of his works in an exhibition subtitled ‘Genius or Vandal? You decide.’

Mama was relieved. The man’s identity may be something of an open secret these days, but Mama has a lot of sympathy with someone who sticks stubbornly to their pseudonymity regardless.

This being cleared up, Mama had no feelings of conflict when she set off, alone, to admire the exhibition. We were out of town, and Papa airily declared that, unlike Mama, he had been to Bristol and seen a number of Banksies in the original. Whatever was in Moscow would not be the same.

Mama, by contrast, had hitherto only seen one of Banksy’s artworks in person.

Banksy near Regents Park

Which brings us to the dilemma of holding an exhibition of street art.

Quite apart from the issue of transposing the pieces from the raw urban environment they were designed to challenge into a respectable art gallery, how do you overcome the logistical difficulties of transporting whole walls, sometimes quite sizable walls, and frequently holding up actual buildings across a continent and into a room or two, albeit rooms in the very large Central House of Artists, opposite Gorky Park and within the grounds of the sculpture park Muzeon?

The answer may surprise you.

You. Do. Not. Even. Attempt. It!

I know!

Luckily, many of Banksy’s better known works have been reproduced in (Mama understands) fairly limited, carefully authenticated prints. Which is the advantage of frequently working with stencils. So the exhibition consists of a number of these, borrowed back from their owners, and one or two sketches and similar, of the back of an envelope type.

Banksy Note Central House of Artists Moscow

There are also nice big photos of the original works in situ.

Which were usually of typical British street scenes, frequently in London. Mama, overdue a visit back to the motherland at this point, was feeling quite homesick by the end of the show. At one point she actually forgot she was supposed to be looking for the (quite subtle) bit of graffiti and instead gazed at the buildings, the trees, the shops, the road signs, and the people, in undisguised longing for a few minutes.

London street with Banksy Moscow exhibition

Other expats be warned.

Also be warned that you are not the target audience for this show.

The thing is, Mama would not have called herself an avid Banksy follower. But what with the fact that she and Banksy are somewhat of an age, a number of his works here seemed focused on her yoof, cycling as they do though the same topics any 20 something anarcho middle class leftie would have had an eye on back in the 90s.

In fact, the themes – the iniquities of the British royal family, the rise of surveillance society and an obsession with the works of Quentin Tarantino – seemed so linked to their time and the culture that produced them, Mama wondered if they would speak to anyone younger, not British, and not currently upset by the death of Princess Diana, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the ear sawing off scene in Reservoir Dogs being set to such an irresistibly catchy song.

The Royal Family Banksy Moscow exhibition

It also seemed perhaps a bit trivial compared to some of today’s concerns.

Mama concluded that maybe that’s what everyone thinks looking back on their youthful outrage from their 40s, except, perhaps, the bit about the UK having one CCTV camera for every 11 people or so.

Thug for Life Banksy Moscow exhibition

And to be fair, the feedback from Muscovites younger than herself is that they had no trouble relating to the more general points being made by these sections.

Of course, the last thing Mama remembers hearing about from Banksy was the Dismaland installation (pun entirely intended), which was really quite recent, about the same time we left for Moscow in fact.

Banksy took over a large area in a run down seaside resort town on the south coast for a month and together with over 40 other artists created a nightmarish theme park attraction. It featured not only social commentary via the medium of subverted fairground rides and a derelict fairytale castle, but also real life docents who acted like grumpy disaffected employees of the unhappiest place on earth.

Dismaland Banksy Moscow

Mama followed with interest the fuss that it caused, with some commentators noting that the sarcasm was all rather broad, while at the same time, 150 000 people braved the difficulties of booking a ticket via a sketchy website or queued for hours to get the walk in tickets released each day. Having added some 20 million GBP to the local economy it was dismantled – and the building materials sent to the refugee camp near Paris.

It was all very gleefully satisfying.

Of course, Banksy is in many ways something of a performance artist, one who sucks all around his work into participating. From the ongoing arguments about whether his paintings should be allowed to stay put, be painted over, or be protected with glass, involving building owners, local councils, Transport for London, art critics, buyers, the media and after that, the general public. To the fact that he once got into a tit for tat wall painting war with a more venerable tagger and his followers. Which only ended when the other party, King Robbo, sadly had a (non-graffiti related) accident and eventually died of his injuries.

But I suppose what surprised Mama is that given all that has happened in the three years since Dismaland, there wasn’t more about things like the UK currently descending into self-induced turmoil, as though in defiance of how often Banksy really surfaced in the headlines, he should be out there spray painting furiously at all hours, all night, every night, fulfilling the same sort of role as political cartoonists in the newspapers, or comedians on the TV programmes like Mock the Week or Have I got News for You, churning out topical commentary on the latest stories to hit the headline week after week after week.

And it isn’t like he hasn’t said anything at all.

Brexit Banksy Moscow

Of course, Mama mused, it seems Banksy has been spending a bit of time in the US, so perhaps Brexit is not feeling quite so immediate. Mama also gathers one of his current area of focus is Palestine, and there is definitely a case to be made that this is a place which needs attention from someone who has proved very effective at communicating to the public at large in a way that gets people’s attention.

Still, there is another reason than that ‘Banksy: Genius or Vandal’ is more of a Banksy retrospective for the potentially uninitiated, and this is that the exhibition turns out not to actually have anything to do with Banksy himself.

In fact, just this week he posted a screen shot on Instagram of splendidly well-crafted conversation indicating that he might be a bit miffed about it.

Banksy on Instagram Moscow exhibition

The organisers of the exhibition at the Central House of Artists did actually say up front that he was not involved, mind you, but it does explain a couple of things that Mama found surprising when she went round. One is that the tickets start at 550 roubles, which is not 20 quid (it’s more like a fiver) but it is pricy for a Moscow art exhibition, and that’s if you buy online and for a weekday. It’s 15 pounds if you want to skip any queues and have a guided tour, but there are Q-codes which you can scan and get an audio or textual commentary (in Russian) for free. Mama paid 750 roubles (7 or 8 GBP) when she bought at the door on a weekend.

The other is that there is a certain amount of leveraging the merchandising opportunities at the end. Mama hadn’t previously associated Banksy with paying to have your photos taken in the style of some of his better known stencils, or branded T shirts. In fact, while actually at the exhibition, she had spent some time pondering this and trying to work out if this was some kind of new work on the commericalisation of art. Hey ho.

The exhibition closes on 1st September. In the meantime, if you want to see what he is actually doing now, you can visit his website or check him out of Instagram.

More information

The Moscow Banksy exhibition site website.

Banksy’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Yate, South Gloucestershire, UK.

Address: The Central House of Artists, Krimsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049

Opening: Until 1st September 2018 11am to 9pm Monday to Sunday

Admission: Adults: 650 roubles on weekdays and 750 roubles at weekends, no concessions. It’s 100 roubles cheaper if you buy tickets online, and 1400 roubles for a guided tour booked online.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn left, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway at right angles. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Central House of Artists is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the bus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way.

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Banksy in Moscow a review of his unauthorised exhibition.

Street Art at Belokamennaya Station, Moscow

When Mama and Papa tried to take us round the newly opened Central Circle overland railway line round Moscow, it did not go well. So this weekend they snuck off and did it without us. This post is not about that, though, but the impromptu side trip they made when the train stopped seemingly in the desolated middle of a forest at Belokamennaya (Whitestone). A brand new station in the middle of nowhere? Clearly they had to get off to check what, in fact, was the point.

Belokamennaya

Well, at first glance, this newly renovated train halt seems to be servicing someone’s well protected dacha (country retreat) and sauna complex. Although Papa did note that if you follow the reasonably well trodden footpath through the woods in that direction, you get to somewhere a bit more populated fairly quickly.

Woodpile

You can also admire one of the old turn of the century stations built for the original iteration of this passenger service.

Old Station Belokamennaya

But it seems the real attraction lies on the other side of the tracks.

First, this is a sort of back entrance into the large forested nature reserve, ‘Elk Island’ (yes, with actual elks. Also, wild boar, beavers and some kind of egret). As you may or may not have noticed if you follow Mama on social media, the snow has made a seemingly permanent arrival in Moscow already. Clearly one of the things you can do in Elk Island woods at this time of year is go cross country ski-ing, and the parents did indeed encounter a number of people setting out to do just that. Although they also saw a very determined young couple who had taken their stroller out for a breath of fresh air and were manhandling it back across the completely non-existent pathway towards the station entrance too. So general hiking in the area is also a thing, winter, summer, whatever.

Skiing at Belokamennaya

What caught Mama’s eye, however, were the abandoned buildings.

Now Mama is not sure that she entirely approves of the schadenfreude photography fetish for ruined Soviet structures, but on the other hand there is something a bit more interestingly voyeuristic about poking around someone else’s stuff from the recent past rather than two thousand years ago.

Mama has never been one for standing in the middle of a field and feeling the vibrations.

Plus, it turns out that at Belokamennaya, there is also graffiti.

street art steam punk belokamennaya

Street art Belokamennaya

Street art cat Belokamennaya

Street art Belokamennaya

Street art tag Belokamennaya

Street art face Belokamennaya

Street art Belokamennaya

Street art flowers Belokamennaya

Street art skull Belokamennaya

So given the authentically dystopian atmosphere of the distressed concrete, the large amounts of rubbish, the godforsaken location and the epic street art, it’s not surprising that Mama and Papa tripped over Russian citizens secretly preparing for what she understands is the imminent invasion of Latvia.

Laserquest

Or indulging in a bit of free range laser questing. Your choice.

Laser quest Belokamennaya

Mama is afraid that she and Papa spoiled it a bit, by wandering around, clearly unafraid of being shot and taking photographs. Especially as she had on her heeled city boots, a natty flower strewn hat and a Cath Kitson-esque shoulder bag. Not very suitable for the urban warfare look, Mama.

But also not very suitable for yomping around offroad either, so once they had got their fill of the clean crisp cold air, they got back on the train and continued their journey. Which is a story for another day.

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Reasons why you should get off the train at Belokamennaya station on the Central Circle Line, Moscow, Russia

More Information

The Moscow Metro’s Central Circle Line website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Kyselak, a graffiti tagger who left his mark.

Address: 55.8298°N 37.7018°E

Opening: Trains on the Central Circle run from 6am to 1am, and the interval between trains on this line is between 5 – 15 minutes, depending on the time of day.

Admission: One shot Metro tickets are 60 roubles (more expensive per pound than a year ago, less expensive than five years ago. I dunno. Google it). You can travel anywhere on the network making as many connections as you like within 90 minutes for that. It’s cheaper if you have a Troika card (like London’s Oyster).

By public transport: Well, it’s Belokamennaya, innit. On the Central Circle line.

By car: Mama couldn’t possibly comment.