My friend Julie offered me her second ticket to The Banksy Art Exhibition currently on in Toronto -- lucky me! We went on Thursday.
As most will know, Banksy is an England-based graffiti artist, political activist and film director, whose identity is unknown. I read that the artist's own mother doesn't know that her son is the world famous Banksy, thinking instead that he's a house painter and decorator. His choice to remain anonymous probably began because graffiti is illegal in most places, and, I imagine, continues because anonymity would deliver a much easier way of life for a man who has become one of the world's most famous living artists.
It is believed that he comes from Bristol England, and I estimate that he's about 40 now. He began creating his brilliant works of graffiti in England the mid to late 90s. In 1997 he met a photographer named Steve Lazarides, when Lazarides was asked to follow him around the streets and take pictures for a now defunct indie magazine called Sleaze Nation.
Based on the decade long relationship between the two, during which Lazarides acted as his agent, the two hit it off. Lazarides opened a studio and shop, where Bansky prints were produced and sold, along with the work of other street artists. This coincided with interest in street art taking off and quickly lead to remarkable sums being paid by collectors for Banksy originals and limited-edition prints. By early 2008 an original called "Laugh Now" sold at auction for 228k pounds, the equivalent of about $450k Canadian at the time.
So, based on my estimation of Banksy's age, by the time he was 30, he was creating artworks that collectors were willing to pay nearly half a million dollars for.
The relationship between Banksy and Lazarides came to a complete end around that time, indicating that commercial success was not the route that Banksy chose to follow. He has subsequently made it clear that his motivation to make art is in no way financial. Rather, he is intent on delivering an ongoing commentary on the human condition and injustice in this world, though his ongoing clever and humourous street art.
I personally became aware of Banksy, when he came to Toronto in May of 2010, and created seven pieces in different locations downtown. I became caught up in the story, as most were painted over or destroyed nearly as quickly as they went up (boo!). Two of those works remain, one is where he originally placed it, now protected behind a piece of plexi-glass, and the other, which was painted on a concrete, is enclosed within a display case, slab of concrete and all, somewhere in the city's underground pathway. I vow to go find "our" two Banksys and I'll report back once I do.
While he has chosen not to pursue success in the traditional art world, Banksy continues making his statements. In fact, according to his personal Instagram account, he is currently busy at work leaving treasures hidden in the streets of Paris.
I encourage you to look at photos of his awesome street-art on his site. There's a slide show of 115 images that are so so good.
And now about the show we saw: The touring exhibition was organized and curated by Steve Lazarides, and contains 80 Banksy pieces created in the 2000s (I think the latest ones were from 2006), borrowed from 40 different collectors from around the world.
Lazarides specifically states that nothing was taken from the street for the show. That has been happening all over, with some pieces being auctioned while still on the wall where they were painted, with the buyers left to decide how to extract them. There's a really good documentary called "Saving Banksy" available on Canadian Netflix, if you're interested in the frenzy going on with the street pieces. While Lazarides says this is not the case with the works in this show, there are two pieces that sure look like they were taken from their original locations -- one on a rolling garage-type door and one on a piece of steel. I'm not sure what the story is with those. There's also one cardboard cut-out from an installation Banksy did, and one sculpture. The remaining 76 pieces are prints and original paintings on canvas, created with the intention of being bought and hung on a wall.
Unfortunately, one print was stolen while the exhibition was being set up. They still don't know by whom, or where it is now. Here is the news story about that.
Given that this show was put on without any involvement of the artist himself, and that he no longer believes that people should have to pay to see art, I found myself in a moral dilemma, going back and forth in my mind about whether or not I should publicly reveal that I went. I even wrote to Banksy directly (his email is on his website) to ask him what he thought about the show. Unsurprisingly, he didn't respond.
I thought the show was really good and, in the end, I decided to share it with you for several reasons:
- Apparently the laws, at least in Canada, are such that if Banksy wanted to stop the show from going on, he would have been able to quite easily, maintaining his anonymity while doing so.
- The majority of the pieces in the show are original paintings or numbered prints, which were created during the 10 year period in which the artist did intentionally create art with the goal of selling it. He changed his mind about that later, but the pieces in the show were specifically produced with the aim of showing/selling them.
- As previously mentioned, five of the seven pieces that Banksy created in Toronto were destroyed within hours/days of their being discovered. I understand that this is what happens to a lot of his street art, so there is little chance for fans of his work to actually see it, if not in an exhibition format. That said, if given a chance, there's no question that I'd prefer seeing his works as intended, on the streets.
- Since Banksy is said to now believe that people shouldn't have to pay to see art, ideally the show would have been free. However, while I can't speak for other cities, I can for Toronto -- free art shows and events here have a tendency to be extremely crowded. Selfishly, being claustrophobic, I was happy to accept a purchased ticket to the show, and to have the opportunity to see the art in a relaxed way.
It was very well organized, bringing together work borrowed from different collectors from around the world. It was held within a neat old building, with awesome lighting and music, all features that would have cost the organizers to present. Perhaps they could have offered one weekend where people could "pay-what-they-could" in an effort to honour the artist's beliefs. I would still have chosen the paid-for ticket option though, because of the crowds.
- To quote Steve Lazarides, someone who, at one time, knew the artist very well, "In his heart of hearts, I think he'd rather have people looking at his work rather than it being mothballed in some warehouse somewhere."
Evidently, there are many art-lovers in the city, who are happy to have the opportunity to see some Bankys, as the initial 50,000 tickets sold out quickly, and now the show has been extended to August 19.
To give you a sense of the crowds, we were there on Thursday at 1pm. It was boiling hot outside; while the building is not air-conditioned, it has thick walls and a concrete floor, so it was relatively cool inside.
Here's a little look at the show ...
↑ Photos by Steve Lazarides of Banksy in action. ↑
↑ A photo of Lazarides' shop, where Banksy's early prints were sold. ↑
↑ A photo by Lazarides of an early Banksy graffiti piece. ↑
↑ "Rude Copper" ↑
Afterwards, Julie and I took the two-minute walk south along Sterling Road, to The Drake Commissary for lunch.
(If this place looks familiar, I did post about it not long ago here.)
Julie recommended the kale salad, so we both had that. It was tasty in addition to being a very healthy choice!
It was a great afternoon with a beloved friend.
Thanks for reading,
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