Banksy Declares War On Police Harassment, Brexit And Climate Change – GoMA – Clare Henry  


Politics: It’s rare to see huge lines of families queuing outside a political event, unique if the politics are presented by a civic art gallery. But add Banksy to Glasgow’s GoMA, and thousands rush to pay £15 each to enjoy his acerbic social commentary. And they love it. “Best GoMA exhibition ever,” visitors told me. And, (excepting Niki de St Phalle’s opening show in 1996) I am inclined to agree.  

Banksy tackles war, police harassment, Brexit, climate change, animal abuse, homelessness, wife abuse, 9/11, government surveillance, racial profiling Disneyland, the collapse of the housing market…All are anti-establishment. Recently he’s been to Ukraine. In 2005 he adorned Israel’s West Bank wall. Provocative but humorous, he cleverly communicates each civic tragedy, political disaster or global problem with wit and precision. His clever visual puns appeal to the eye – and make you think.  

So why Glasgow?? One day the GoMA phone rang. Banksy wanted to do his first show in 14 years at GoMA because of the 1844 Duke of Wellington statue outside the gallery. For the last 40 years, it has famously had a traffic cone on its head. “This might sound absurd and pretentious, but it’s my favourite work of art in the U.K. and the reason I’ve brought the show here.” He did have a small show at the now-defunct Glasgow Arches in 2001. Rumour has it he also lived in the city. Who knows?      

'Banksy: Cut and Run. 25 years of hard labour
‘Banksy: Cut and Run. 25 years of hard labour Photo Clare Henry 2023

After 25 years, he is still an anonymous figure. How on earth has he attained pop star status? No Elton John antics to draw attention. Yet here he confesses that in 1997, “I was friendless, unemployed and heartbroken.” His girlfriend had dumped him. Revenge was sweet. Working at night, he took up a spray can to graffiti his anger. 

His first stencil was of men in a sniper’s sights on a Bristol wall. He was, he says, a “slow drawer”, so then he made stencils cut from card, stencils of rats, bombs, police running, and life-size kids playing. He was glimpsed installing banal Old Masters salvaged from thrift stores in the world’s top art galleries like New York’s Met! He was never caught. 

These stunts caught the public imagination. Banksy’s subversive interventions also made money. Now his work is worth millions. His record is $24.4m in 2022. No wonder his pseudonym is Banksy!!

Banksy has a gift for graphics. GoMA’s show includes sketchbooks, plus actual original stencils for classics like the iconic Kissing Coppers” in 2004 and “Mobile Lovers” in Bristol 2014. Best of all, Basquiat’s 2017 colourful skeleton is being stopped and searched. Fascinating to see the well-worn stencils close up, complete with odd bits of masking tape and sellotape. It looks as though he generates the images using a computer, as many have a definite photographic quality. 

GoMA’s setting is all black, like a nightclub, with its enormous main ground floor galley subdivided into small confined spaces full of artworks, which the slow queue winds through until it opens out under the central baroque ceiling. Because they lock away your phone, visitors concentrate, quietly looking, peering, shuffling, and discussing. It’s really impressive to see how attentive the crowd is!

Along with astute political comments, puns and epigrams combining dark humour, Banksy balances a populist approach with slogans and clear, concise, straightforward labels. These easily understood messages are simple but effective.  

The show also features Stormzy’s Union flag stab vest for Glastonbury 2019 and a detailed model of how Banksy shredded his famous “Girl With Balloon.” (It took a year’s experimentation and involved a motor from an electric car window.) This work’s 2018 self-destruction, seconds after being auctioned at Sotheby’s, is a uniquely Banksy audacious stunt! 

My grandkids loved this model, and also the interactive Meat Truck with its animal puppets – woolly toy pig, sheep, cow, panda, that they could manoeuvre themselves. Needless to say, the toilet covered with playful rats plus an ant-infested lift were favourites, but they also caught the serious side of the twin towers tragedy or Santa’s sleigh homelessness.   

This is, of course, a publicity and money-making event for Glasgow and keeps Banksy in the public eye. Thousands of visitors will come. Tickets are sold out on many days. GoMA is usually free entry. What financial arrangements have been made with Glasgow’s city council? Local kids and schools were invited at the start. 

But Banksy is a great businessman, along with his other talents. He has created many of the most memorable works of graffiti art ever. Now probably nearing fifty, where does this famous but anonymous artist-cum-social commentator go from here?  

‘Banksy: Cut and Run. 25 years of hard labour An exhibition of stencils from 1998-2023.” GoMA Till Aug 28th. By CLARE HENRY 

Tickets from the exhibition website:

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