Milan: The Art of Banksy at the Mudec Museum of Cultures

AUTHOR: Olga Mascolo

An instructive exhibition by Gianni Mercurio is an overview and explanation of Banksy’s artwork since his debut as a “graffiti guerrilla”.

In August 2018, Banksy published the screenshot of a chat with an unnamed interlocutor on his official Instagram page. It shows Banksy’s reaction to an unauthorised exhibition of his work in Russia, costing £20 to get in: “I wish I could find it funny. What’s the opposite of LOL?” To which his correspondent answered, “I think it’s LOL.” Laughing out loud was the same reaction many had on 5 October, when the Banksy painting Girl With Balloon was partially shredded by a remote-control mechanism on the back of the frame immediately after selling for 1 million 200 pounds at Sotheby’s. Poor little girl! The event enflamed a debate that has been smouldering for 20 years now: Can street art be closed up in museums? The Mudec Museum of Cultures in Milan is giving it a shot – in an academic way at that. On 21 November, it inaugurated “The Art of Banksy, a Visual Protest”, which does not just exhibit the art, but does so in the most pedagogic way possible. Needless to say, the show was not authorised by the artist.

Its curator, Gianni Mercurio, endeavours to explain the artist Banksy as a mediagenic phenomenon, one that is provocatively worthy of display in the parlour. “His anonymity is a piece of gossip that no longer interests anyone,” says Mercurio. The romanticised figure of Banksy disappears, reappearing for what he is: a (political) artist, a street or maybe non-street artist. Wanting to see the half-shredded Girl With Balloon, we might forget that Banksy reworked his iconic stencil of the little girl to show a Syrian child in 2014. It was his contribution to the #WithSyria campaign marking the third anniversary of the war in Syria. His support culminated in a one-and-a-half minute YouTube video.

Installation view
The exhibition explains this and gives a political interpretation of his work, which includes Banksy’s rat stencils, the screen print Monkey Queen (the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II portrayed as a monkey against the Union flag), Rude Copper (a British police officer sticking up his middle finger at the viewer) and Queen Victoria (the Queen in full regalia, crown plus high-heeled boots, stockings and suspenders sitting on the face of another woman, also in suspenders). As the exhibition explains, the latter erotic-punk image refers to a popular myth implying that Queen Victoria vetoed a bill to make lesbianism illegal because she was in fact attracted to women. There is Banksy’s print Wrong War, made for the 2004 exhibition “Pax Britannica: A Hellish Peace” held at Aquarium Gallery in London. Sponsored by the Stop the War coalition, the show exhibited 22 prints by “distinguished artists who do not believe in war as a means toward peace,” as described by the organisers. The protest was triggered by the American and British invasion of Iraq.

The curator of “The Art of Banksy” wants visitors to know that all this is art, all of it is history, and it behooves us to remember it. His aim is to communicate this in an educational way at the Museum of Cultures. “We want people to understand Banksy as an artist, not as an attention-grabber.” Mission accomplished. There is another topic: Banksy’s situationism. And the question we mentioned before, whether street art belongs in museums. “Today’s street artists come from academies of fine arts,” observes Mercurio. None of the pieces on display have been detached from the walls of buildings. Of course the reproducibility of stencil work facilitated the installation. However, when street art ends up in museums and auction-houses, it ceases to be of the street, thereby ceasing to be what it is. It becomes (art) history. And the entrance fee to see it here costs 14 euros.

Photography @ Paolo Poce