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