Banksy has taken over the Bristol City Museum. A few years ago, puffing security guards would have chased him out of the building. Now those same guards are in place to protect his work from the curious public. Who would have thought it, eh?
How Britain’s most notorious graffiti artist came to be given the run of his home-town museum is a telling tale of our times. And they say terrorism doesn’t work. Yes, it bloody well does. Banksy’s career is clear proof of it. His transformation from a kid with a spray can, who ran the trains and dodged the law, into a rich artist whose work is collected by Brad and Angelina could not have happened before.
I had never visited the Bristol City Museum. There was never any reason to go. Once, it must have been a becolumned locus of intense regional pride. More recently, it has had to fight for survival with all the other neglected provincial museums in the land. The cobwebs have multiplied. The collection has stultified. The place looks as if it could do with a thorough dusting: some silver here, a gypsy caravan there, stuffed birds, local painters, an old plane hanging in the foyer.
Banksy’s work has been deliberately comingled with this neglected jumble so you are never sure where he’ll pop up next. In the foyer, a burnt-out ice-cream van smuggles a hint of urban danger into the space; but only a hint. Among the Italian baroque paintings, the master of the spray can has added his version of a Mother and Child, listening to their iPod. Among the sculptures sitting dustily on pedestals, a version of Michelangelo’s David has popped up, with dynamite strapped to his torso in the manner of a suicide bomber.
Humour has always been Banksy’s preferred weapon of attack. He’s a witty chap, and every nook and cranny of the museum seems to harbour another fine one-liner. Hunting them down is fun. I particularly enjoyed a version of Degas’s Ballet Dancers into which Simon Cowell has been smuggled. Just in case anyone thinks Banksy cannot paint, witness his huge portrayal of the House of Commons, in which the politicians have been replaced by chimps. Kids will enjoy the show. Everyone will enjoy it. Enter the natural-history section – where the best bits of Banksy’s intervention await you, in a series of hilarious animatronic cages – and you will see a solicitous mother hen looking after her newest offspring: a pair of pecking chicken nuggets.
What you get here is, therefore, what you always get from Banksy: an amusing commentary on the grubby little world in which we live; quickfire jokes at the government’s expense; funny sculptures; witty puns. He’s on good form. But it’s the same old Banksy. The big change is not in the artist, but in the setting. The museum director was in on it from the start.
Apparently, the people who work here were told the bits of sculpture they were installing were props for a new movie. It was an entirely convincing cover story: whoring yourself to movie crews is what provincial museums have to do these days to keep afloat. I don’t know whether Banksy had any ambition to highlight their plight when he agreed to do the show.
I suspect not. But his work will bring in the crowds, add Bristol City Museum to the map and put a spring in the step of this sad little place. All of which are excellent outcomes.
I would still rather he hadn’t done it. Banksy the rebel was an artist you could trust, a free creative voice that owed nothing to anybody. Banksy the respectable museum artist is something else. What is being destroyed here is not the anon ymity of Bristol City Museum, it’s Banksy’s raison d’être.