A week ago, I visited a Banksy exhibit that was in a museum somewhere I had never heard and visited before – Mänttä. This ended up being a two-hour drive and after one and a half, I got the courage to ask my brother “where on earth are we” since I had the map. Obviously, neither of us knew and got impatient. At one point, however, we saw a sign that said “Serlachius Museums” and were relieved. As one of these, The Art Museum Gösta held an unauthorized Banksy exhibition from May till well into the beginning of this October, and I had to ensure two one-hour spots for us already in May because people had them booked all through summer and the beginning of autumn. (Covid measures, as you can imagine, however, it was also a relief that the gallery wasn’t packed.)
It took my brother and I two hours to drive to the museum which ended up being on one of the most beautiful properties I’ve ever seen, decorated with sculptures, amid beautiful lakeside nature with a grey, modern bridge leading up to a small island with a walking path. The Serlachius Museum Gösta is comprised of a manor, built in the 1930s and the former residence of a paper mill owner named Gösta Serlachius, and a magnificent modern wood-constructed pavilion that enables exhibits of contemporary art. Banksy’s works were displayed here, and while it was a simple space presenting the artist’s graffiti and prints, it was a significant contrast to the serene park outside as the art of the space has appeared in urban streets.
This exhibit was significant since it was the first time Banksy’s works were displayed in Finland and not only that, as I mentioned, it was an unauthorized display meaning it hadn’t got any approval from the artist himself. There is quite a lot of irony in Banksy and how he operates because this is a street artist who is against the institution of art with its museums and market and selling what he has created – yet, the art world acknowledges him and collectors buy his creations with millions. This has always amused me, and amazingly, the art world continues to support the anonymous artist and his name. About three years ago, there was the incredible incident in a Sotheby’s auction where just as Banksy’s iconic painting, Girl with Balloon, was sold, only seconds after the gavel drop, the painting started to shred. What then? Well, because this is the art world, it’s seen as the first artwork created in the middle of an auction… and is estimated to grow in value. Naturally—even though it appears as if it’s going in the bin.
Very fittingly, then, as an avid criticizer of the art market and auctions nonetheless, Banksy has created a piece, which we were also fortunate to see, depicting an auction with collectors gathered around an auctioneer with next to him a large canvas. Because one doesn’t always have to be discreet, the artist has chosen to say, literally, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”
(Brilliant and funny.) And the morons keep buying them. People have thought that Banksy has “sold out” since to whom else does the money go. However, he continues his work as a provocative anonymous artist who is also against any business trying to profit from his name and creations. He never authorizes any exhibits, including this one I visited; therefore, the entrance was free and the museum didn’t sell anything with Banksy’s name on it. (Quite wise.)
One of the most anti-capitalist contemporary artists as well, Banksy’s works don’t fail to impress and affect. He puts an ugly spin on buying excessively and the valuing of commodities that makes our modern consumer culture look horrid – from the perspective of how it’s built by companies selling products as well as from the buyer’s.
Of course, consumption becomes particularly ugly when having the moving, physical form of the shopper. (This certainly excludes online shopping, but we’ve all physically shopped before and it’s not necessarily completely ending soon.) The following piece became one of my favorites because at the same time, it both amused me with its classical figures grabbing a modern sign, and made me uncomfortable. You don’t know when consumption deludes you to think that buying equals contentment when some just become obsessed with owning. I’ve worked only a couple of times as a seasonal assistant in a noted department store, but they were enough to make me hate shopping culture – or more like chasing deals culture – and those who obsessively take part in it.
Banksy’s works have that creative simplicity of a street artists, however, because he is socially and politically conscious, many of his illustrations intriguingly depict violent movements with contrasting aspects to their threatening tone. An iconic piece, also a favorite, the following is the wonderfully named Love Is In The Air in which the protagonist appears to be in the middle of a riot, though violently throwing a bouquet of flowers. Its message is simple, yet beautiful: instead of war, wage peace. No wonder it’s iconic. Look at the figure and how threatening his position appears, a scarf covering half of his face, with a clearly angry, determined look. But then, look at what he’s ready throw.
As I continued in the gallery, Banksy’s works took a satirical turn with works that criticize the British culture and monarchy. One memorable piece Banksy has produced was this collection of fake pound bills with the picture of Princess Diana that instead of “Bank of England,” they have “Banksy of England” written on them, bills people actually tried to use. However, his works took another turn with more chilling anti-war illustrations. Here again we saw Banksy’s creative simplicity with a striking twist, as in a piece with three harmless, middle-class ladies who appear to be playing a game of boules, however, with balls that are actually bombs. There were many striking pieces in this part of the gallery, and the most memorable to me was the following print depicting two soldiers, one of which is painting a red peace sign and the other holding his gun and keeping watch. It’s quite horrid the more I think about it because of the deceitfulness of power and then the war a powerful establishment might inflict. Banksy presents the awful irony in war; this piece, for example, demonstrates two soldiers supposedly in action in the name of peace (and democracy), yet they’re carrying guns and ready to attack.
Banksy didn’t fail to impress, and he never really does. He first confuses you a bit as a street artist of bizarre pictures that might catch our attention first for their strangeness, but then make us interpret for ourselves, and hopefully the social and political implications. The gallery space had an intriguing poster and its heading was “I dissent, therefore I am.” I do think this is how the artist operates, and the streets, where it still might be illegal to spray, paint, or draw, are his canvas because art should be seen by everyone and belong to all.