Banksy: King Rat
The graffiti artist's vermin-ridden London exhibition is cleaner and more respectable than it appears.
How much rat poop can accumulate after 164 live rats share a small gallery for a week? Not too much, if there’s a janitor handy to clean it up. Indeed, the fact there was a janitor on hand at all was telling – it set the tone for London graffiti artist Banksy’s new indoor show, Crude Oils: A gallery of re-mixed masterpieces, vandalism and vermin.
There were vermin all right, as well as parodies of conventional artworks such as Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, but the show was cleaner and more sterilised than it might seem at first glance.
As you step into the gallery, you are greeted by rats, scampering about or curled up and sleeping. The gallery is strictly one-in-one-out and you are requested not to spend more than five minutes inside as it’s so small. What are the rats for? They’re supposed to represent us, apparently, suggesting perhaps that we sleep, eat, excrete and breathe our lives away in a similar state of ignorance and bliss. They are only in there for a week so they don’t have time to breed (the average gestation period of a rat is 21 days), and they’re living the life of Riley with plenty to eat.
The artwork consists of gilt-framed parodies, or ‘remixes’, of masterpieces like Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, which have wilted and are now retitled ‘Sunflowers at a Petrol Station’. In Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’, the diner glass is broken and a lager lout stands outside in Union Jack boxer shorts with a can of Fosters. A CCTV camera adorns a John Constable-esque pastoral scene, and the Madonna and Child are updated with an iPod. Even the gallery’s alarm box is mounted on the wall like a stag’s-head, with its wires cut – a trophy nod to Banksy’s anti-authority, often illegal antics.
Outside the gallery, other pieces aim to subvert convention. The Grim Reaper wears a bright yellow smiley face, a Beefeater pees against a wall and rats crawl up the sides of a sign for ‘Anti-Climb Paint’. Some of Banksy’s graffiti is playful – a Chinook helicopter wears a bright pink ribbon – while some is seen as more political, like the ladder stretching up the wall marking the Israel-Palestine border (1).
Yet for all his attempts at rebellion and culture jamming, Banksy is more mainstream and market-conscious than he would have us believe. He is a popular icon and media hero, complete with his own website and publicist. He’s been asked to do advertisements for companies such as Nike, and Damien Hirst has bought most of the pieces in the exhibition, which are reportedly priced at more than £25,000 each (2). The fact that he remains anonymous and is wanted by the police for his graffiti simply adds to the allure.
Banksy is a hero for an age that has turned rebellion against authority into a consumer trend – just look at the provocative Nike or Diesel ads, for instance. Despite its rodents, the exhibition seems more of a dog-and-pony show, more style than substance. Even its location, Westbourne Grove in the heart of swanky Notting Hill, was comfortably upper crust – perhaps part of the rats’ function was to recreate the atmosphere of a Brixton alleyway for people who’d never set foot in one.
At least Banksy turns art into a laughing matter, poking fun at his own pop status and playing the PR game of elude-the-media. Likewise, he gives us no reason to take him too seriously. Perhaps his artwork is best appreciated as good clean fun, rats and all.
Banksy’s Crude Oils: A gallery of re-mixed masterpieces, vandalism and vermin is showing at 100 Westbourne Grove, London W2.
Grace Chua is studying in America, and is currently working as an intern at spiked.
(1) Banksy’s artwork can be found at banksy.co.uk and Woostercollective.com
(2) ‘Market news: Hirst buys and sells’, Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2005
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