Related Post: Checking Out Downtown Toronto’s Street Art
In the fall of 2016, I spent a morning checking out the street art of the Kensington Market area and the famous Graffiti Alley in the Queen/Spadina area. (Click on the link above to see some of the street art I sampled.)
I’ll admit I came away a bit puzzled. While what I saw was often colourful and sometimes quite skillfully done, I often wondered just what the point was. And then, of course, taggers with even less to say came along and put their markings on top of it all. Perhaps thinking there has to be a point at all says more about me than about the walls I tried to “read”!
The Banksy exhibit which just opened on Stirling Street near Lansdowne (click here for the Google map) was definitely a more satisfying experience! Gathered in one big rectangular box are eighty pieces of Banksy’s work. (It seems one was stolen during the setting-up phase so make that 79!) Provocative, irreverent, funny, political – Banksy has a point of view. Toronto is the fifth city to host the exhibit, following Melbourne, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and Auckland.
My two favourite pieces were also the exhibit’s two largest –
- Flag Wall, a comment on the American Dream
- Forgive Us Our Trespassing, a 7.5-meter-high meditation on organized religion
It should be mentioned that the exhibit is not put together or endorsed, approved, authorized, or promoted by Banksy himself! Rather, it is his former manager, Steve Lazarides, who put the show together. How Banksy himself feels about all of this is an open question. Both Banksy and Lazarides are from Bristol, England; they first met in the mid-1990s when Banksy was beginning his “career”.
Initially hired to do some photography work for Banksy, Lazarides soon became his manager and promoter and arranger…they worked together until 2008 when the relationship ended. Unclear is what prompted the break-up. It does explain why the exhibit only covers work up to 2008 and gives it a noticeable historical feel given the absence of any Banksy responses to the political earthquakes that have happened in the decade since.
In the shot below you see a series of three photos taken by Steve Lazarides the documentarian as Banksy was putting up a version of his Pissing Guard in Powis Gardens. Note that Banksy’s head has been blurred out to maintain his anonymity. While some people obviously know his real identity, no one has stepped forward and said: “I’m Banksy!” He won’t be appearing at this exhibit to bask in any praise for his art!
So – $35. (plus another $10. in HST and handling fees) a ticket to see an anti-capitalist graffiti artist’s work put together by his ex-manager and current only up to 2008? Eighty middle finger gestures at the British Establishment, the Monarchy, the Police, the Military? Well, not exactly. There are some more gentle moments too which take you to a different place. The Girl With the Balloon is an example. Lazarides is quoted as saying –
“It’s a fairly simplistic, political message that everybody can get, and I think it provokes conversation and now in the age of social media, things get spread around so quickly that that’s what’s made him a global star.”
I am guessing he meant “simple” and not “simplistic” but – whatever!
Available at $5. is a phone set with Lazarides providing commentary on various pieces as you make your way through. I barely used my set but others seemed much more conscientious on getting the complete run-down!
From early on Banksy produced limited-run prints which were sold at Pictures on Walls, a London print gallery influential in promoting work by artists sharing the same anti-Establishment ethos. It is noteworthy that the gallery closed at the end of 2017. The end of an era? Banksy himself would be in his forty’s by now! Given the “best before date” of most artists, you’d have to figure his best days are behind him. Here is POW’s goodbye –
POW was started sixteen years ago by a loose collection of graffiti artists and illustrators shunned by the controlling influences of the day. Working from borrowed office space in East London we set about producing, promoting and distributing our own art. The invention of the internet and the cardboard tube enabled us to circumvent the centuries-old grip of the established art world and we laid waste to their cronyism and vested interests and good taste. (See here for source)
The first thing you see is the following piece, a copy of the classical Greek Winged Victory of Samothrace statue. Like the original now in the Louvre, it is missing the head. Unlike the original, it has a CCTV camera in place! Provocative even if the intent is unclear – make of it what you will!
“Mindless vandalism can take a bit of thought.” Banksy
Lazarides has emphasized that all the pieces in the exhibit come from private collections. If they are works that Banksy did on the street, they are the photographs that Lazarides took and not the actual work.
Easy targets for a bit of irreverence and ridicule, the monarchy and the police appear in a number of pieces.
My single favourite piece in the exhibit. I spent an hour taking the whole show in; I spent about five minutes here and came back for a second look.
Apparently, the Flag Wall has not been seen since the Banksy exhibit: “Barely Legal” in Los Angeles in 2006. That show, by the way, happened with Banksy’s approval. Lazarides mentions (on that handheld device I occasionally turned on?) selling a number of pieces to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on their visit. It undercuts the argument that Banksy himself would not do something so seedy as have a gallery exhibit of his work!
Iwo Jima is not a photographer!
“Taking the photo by Iwo Jima…” So who wrote up the brief explanatory panel about Flag Wall? I will assume it is some millennial in Toronto who was not paying attention during history class! The iconic photo on which Banksy based his “take” on the American Dream was shot in February 1945 on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. It depicts U.S. Marines raising the flag on top of Mount Suribachi during their battle against the Japanese who held the island. That would be WWII and not the one in Vietnam.
Forgive Us Our Trespassing
The other dramatic work – the 7.5-metre tall “Forgive Us Our Trespassing,”. Of the piece, one of the Live Nation promoters of the show, Michel Boersma, says this –
We’re very proud that we’ve got “Forgive Us Our Trespassing,” which is this 7-meter high… It looks like a stained glass window, which Steve hasn’t seen for the last 10 years. It’s been in a bonded warehouse and this is the first time we’re going to be able to show it. (source here)
Kneeling in front of his handiwork is the trespasser himself. For a moment I thought of Bart Simpson, another agent provocateur!
If the inevitable gift shop – a Banksy Gift Shop! – is any indication, the most marketable image in the exhibit is the Girl With Balloon/Balloon Girl. Coffee mugs, T-shirts … there is something for everyone! Full disclosure – it was this image on a bus shelter in my Riverdale neighbourhood that first piqued my curiosity about Banksy, whose fame as a graffiti artist I was vaguely aware of. Credit the image for putting me on the path to coughing up $45.
Was it worth it? A tad overpriced and if you really want to get into it, the entire situation is heavily laden with irony. Also, as I mentioned above, for an exhibit of the work of an artist who was always totally current and fresh in his response to what was happening, it seems somehow dated in its concerns. Maybe that why those pieces that have a timeless feel – the Flag, Forgive Us Our Trespassing, Balloon Girl – engaged me the most.
Read the reviews below for all the reasons you are too “cool” to go. I am glad I went. It has also given me another reason to revisit Graffiti Alley and Kensington Market to see what is there two years since my last visit! Maybe a next-generation Banksy working in obscurity!
Many visitors were using their phones to take pix. A few had more “serious” cameras. I used my Sony A6000 and the Sony 10-18 F4 lens to take the photos in this post. While the ultra-wide angle is handy in close quarters, I should also have brought my 24mm F1.8 along. I also need to work on the colour balance of the above photo!
If you’re wondering what Banksy is doing in 2018, this collection of recent street art in Paris attributed him will give you a good idea – Banksy Est À Paris – Les Premieres Images.
a review of the exhibit by John Semley in Now Magazine with the catchy title The Art of Banksy Is Utterly Vulgar
a negative take on the Banksy exhibit by The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor – Unauthorized Banksy show strips street art of its power while cashing in on its fame
a Maclean’s Magazine article by Adrian Lee – “The real art in the Banksy exhibit isn’t the graffiti—it’s the exhibit itself”. Included is a brief video which gives you a feel for the exhibition space itself.
a Billboard Magazine article – Banksy Exhibit to Make North American Debut With Toronto Warehouse Show Putting the ‘Art in Context’ with some good quotes by the Live Nation promoter of the exhibit.
the Wikipedia entry Banksy