Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Curious Incident of the Banksy 'Street' Art in a Museum

Two new Banksy pieces in England

All photos by shellshock

It’s official (almost).

Banksy has come away from the dirty nappies and dropped two sumptuous pieces in his old stomping ground; a.k.a. God’s own backyard, the West Country of England.


Not surprisingly Banksy has never done anything in genteel Cheltenham before, as the local ‘krew’ consists of a spotty 14 year old called Tarquin, and his dad, Miles, who works in London and graciously comes home at weekends to practise [water] bombing in the 80 metre garden at their Regency townhouse.

As is the norm these days early morning joggers spotted this intricate piece on Sunday morning (13th April) before the paint was dry, and although the tenant of the house didn’t quite know what was going on, she did go and have a look about 7.30am when the 3 ‘workmen’ who had erected a tent over the wall/phone box had just left.  CCTV shows 3 people wearing high viz jackets, driving the ubiquitous white van, arriving at 6am.


It’s on the side of a non-descript house where Hewlett Road and Fairview Road meet in a not quite as leafy area of Cheltenham [for those wishing to visit the postcode is GL52 6AJ, and the train station is less than 2 miles away].  The appeal of this particular house though was not only because its side wall is whitewashed and has a satellite dish on it, but also that it has a telephone box slap bang in front of it, and is on a high visibility mini- roundabout where 6 small roads meet.  All perfect Banksy material.  And finding a public phone box these days isn’t that easy you know!

Being located in Cheltenham is obviously a nod to the huge Government Communications Headquarters building 3 miles away on the other side of town.  More commonly known as GCHQ, this is the place where the UK government monitors global and national communications; i.e. where they spy on us all.

GCHQ say they are keeping Britain “safe and secure” and when asked to comment on the art, even gave a pithy reply that “our website gives a glimpse of what modern-day intelligence operatives are really like, although some may be disappointed by the lack of trench coats and dark glasses”.

Spending barely 15 minutes there this week was enough to make my ears bleed as I couldn’t help overhear the inane conversations of self proclaimed Banksy ‘experts’, a local Councillor, and a BBC news crew urgently called away from Mrs. Miggin‘s cat stuck up a drainpipe.  The usual rent-a-quotes then came out in the written media to exalt its genius, or pillory its tired middle of the road message (delete as applicable to fit your own immoderate point of view).
The truth of course is somewhere in between.  It has a certain charm and the quality is undoubted, but then again since when did illegal graffiti or ‘street art’ involve a tent and 90 minutes of relatively stress free work.  Its message may still be news worthy, but the piece is extremely tardy, as newspapers like the Guardian and the Washington Post were fearlessly reporting on US government electronic spying and Edward Snowden’s valiant whistle blowing since June 2013 and, in a peculiar twist of timing, were awarded a Pulitzer Prize the day after this piece went up.

In a turn of events more significant than the Cheltenham piece, I have wracked my tiny brain, and I believe this is the first ever Banksy street piece to end up in a Museum.

The first most people knew of Banksy’s second new piece (instantly known as 'Mobile Lovers') was when his web site was updated on Monday (14th April), and it mysteriously contained just two photos of a new piece and nothing else; not even one word.  The only clue as to its potential whereabouts was that a double yellow line and a partially cobbled street suggested is was a section of rough old road somewhere in the UK.

Yet it had been ‘found’ already and the location was made public on Tuesday morning.  Although the piece was in a small dead end road (Clement Street), it overlooked the main dual carriageway into central Bristol from the motorway where thousands of motorists sit daydreaming in long queues every day.  It was a classic Banksy location.  High profile, yet simultaneously low profile, and particularly photogenic at dusk, with the street light, cobbles and barbed wire close at hand, making the piece resemble an illicit love tryst in a dark doorway.

It was on a slab of board that was covering a old blocked up doorway next to the Riverside Youth Project.  Staff from the Broad Plain Boy’s Club, the charity who use the Council-owned building, rapidly took the board off and into the club for ‘safe keeping’.  Although Banksy pieces in his home town tend not to get dogged or stolen, I could understand this decision as the hype surrounding new street pieces has now reached intolerable proportions and this one was also easily nickable.  The club’s CCTV show that this one took an hour, under another tent, on Sunday morning although that does raise questions of how he did 2 pieces in 1 morning and how the photo on his website was in the dark.  CCTV suggests Cheltenham was done first and Bristol after, which means the photo of the Bristol piece in the dark must have been taken on Sunday evening.

With indecent haste the club’s leader, Dennis Stinchcombe, claimed it for their fundraising activities and said they would approach Bonham’s ASAP to sell it, whilst also promulgating the theory that Banksy had ‘left’ it there deliberately to help them out financially.  Later they stated they had received offers of over £1m for it.  I doubt it, unless Mr. M. Mouse was calling them up from his padded cell in the toy town detention centre.

A futile debate rapidly raged over ‘street art’ being taken out of context and ‘charged for’, whilst others said ‘calm down love, it’s only a painting’, and agreed it could help local Bristol urchins in this run down area, barely a stones throws away (admittedly by a very strong man) from where Banksy lived in the late 1990’s.

True to their word the club had immediately let people gurn at the piece, in return for a small donation towards their undoubtedly good work.  On Wednesday morning Mr Stinchcombe was still very bullish about their rights and when asked if they would hand it over to the Council if they asked for it he replied, “Definitely not.  Not only that but we don’t get the grants from the Council anymore… if they want to come up with some good grants they can have it”. 


The old adage that possession is 9/10ths of the law is nevertheless total balls and whilst taking photos there on Wednesday lunchtime I witnessed a surprise visit from the Cops, who checked it was still there and gave polite advice about its uncertain ownership status.
The elected Bristol mayor, George Ferguson, was apparently behind this and by the end of the day the clubs resistance had crumbled as it was handed over to more Police, who deposited it at the Bristol Museum, whilst the red trousered one declared that “It certainly would have been a cultural crime if this artwork had been lost to the City”.  Yes, and last week was the 20th Anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide.  I’d hate to add up the uneven number of column inches these 2 ‘events’ have received. 

The mayor had a point though, even if he seemed rather heavy handed in his hyperbole and cries of ‘theft‘.  It certainly seemed a difficult inference to accept that Banksy had meant this to be taken away and sold off within days, even if it would help a good cause.

It went on display there yesterday (Good Friday), just in time for the resurrection. 

It will remain there until its future is decided, and if I were a betting man I would be wagering my kids that it will stay there.  I just hope I don’t acquire more ear-shattering kids as my winnings though.

Free entrance is assured at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Queens Road, Bristol, BS8 1RL. 

A range of tacky souvenirs will apparently be available soon after the Easter hols.  More info here…


Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

BBC further coverage:

Mitch said...

Enjoyed this feature very much... I do think that all the Banksy hype lately is leading up to the "Stealing Banksy" weekend at the "Me Hotel" in the Strand this weekend.... Expect more firewoks hitting walls....

NoLions said...

Mitch, I believe that Banksy was attempting to derail the Stealing banksy hype machine. Check out why here:

Mitch said...

I think they go hand in hand as one would link one to the other! Banksy could be very clever here and buy back all the artwork! Of couse it would then still increase in value!! He wins every time! Thanks Dave for the reply and link.