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This weekend we’re watching: Fame and irony – Banksy, the invisible vandal

This weekend we’re watching: Fame and irony – Banksy, the invisible vandal
Banksy Most Wanted directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley

‘Banksy Most Wanted’ explores the conceptual contradictions which arose when the guerrilla street artist became the world’s most famous anonymous person, and features compelling evidence for his identity. But are we better off not knowing?

On Thursday, 20 August 2020, the Encounters Documentary Festival kicked off opening night with Influence, an investigative documentary on the now defunct UK PR firm, Bell Pottinger, produced by Daily Maverick’s Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak. The festival’s offering of films and documentaries is entirely free – although donations are welcome – with a broad selection of local and international films screened at specific times and with limited “seats”. On Saturday, 22 August, Banksy Most Wanted will be released at 9am for a limited 24-hour screening with only 500 tickets available.

Banksy Most Wanted

The magician pauses for effect: “Is this your card?” (it is). How is that possible? There was nothing up his sleeves, you checked. Awe and curiosity immediately take hold – you have to know how he did it! But do you really want to? As soon as you discover the trick, the magic that still lingers in the air will dissipate like smoke.

Banksy is probably the most famous anonymous person alive today. His artworks and stunts continue to shock and entertain the world and his following is gargantuan. None of this would be possible if his identity were revealed and yet billions of people, even his fans (especially his fans), would love to know who he is. That contradiction is the focus of Banksy Most Wanted.

These days, when a Banksy pops up on the street, rather than being scraped off by irritated public servants it is enshrined behind a wall of glass, or excavated by the very capitalist vultures it slanders, and sold to the highest bidder.

Banksy’s secret identity kindled a mythology; it was the catalyst of his rise to legendary acclaim, but the original purpose of his anonymity was not self-promotion, but self-preservation. Banksy is a guerilla street artist – almost all of his works are technically vandalism. The threat of fines and jail time certainly isn’t lessened by the anti-establishment (and sometimes anti-police) messaging in his work.

Banksy’s works are a big “stuff you” to prevailing systems of authority, and in choosing a public medium which positions him as a renegade, his art has been embraced by the people.

A quote from the film: “The trajectory of his career is aligned with the internet. What museum or gallery in the world can bring you that kind of audience?”

Banksy’s works have been appropriated extensively and thoroughly absorbed into pop-culture. They’re bold, simple, shrewd, irreverent and universally accessible. The flower thrower which was originally created in 2003 in Jerusalem is now used as a symbol of protest globally.

The interesting irony explored in the film is that Banksy’s work became so popular that it was assimilated into the mainstream. These days, when a Banksy pops up on the street, rather than being scraped off by irritated public servants it is enshrined behind a wall of glass, or excavated by the very capitalist vultures it slanders and sold to the highest bidder.

They come marching in feigning concern for the artwork – promising to protect it or allow more people to see it, but of course, it lands up selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds and relocated to a wealthy patron’s house.

The film features exclusive interviews with the art dealer Robin Barton (also known as Bankrobber), who was the first person to take down and sell Banksies. This is the kind of chap who starts sentences with: “I recall sitting in my delicatessen in Kent…” Barton had the audacity to gouge the Folkstone Banksy (a critique on the frivolity of “fine art”), out of a wall, to be sold at an exhibition. The irony of a collector buying an artwork about “the vacuousness of art collecting”, is obviously damning of the collector, but it might also reflect poorly on Banksy himself.

Banksy Most Wanted opens with footage of the famous shredding incident. It’s the Frieze Art Fair 2018 in London. Girl with balloon, Banksy’s most famous piece, “the collector’s holy grail” has just been auctioned for £860,000 when an alarm sounds and the painting begins to self-shred. The spectacle is highly entertaining. What better way to intellectually disrupt the art world than to literally disrupt it? But the disruption was itself disrupted. The canvas was only partially shredded, and bizarrely, the stunt actually landed up increasing the artwork’s value.

Now that Banksies have become valuable commodities which represent huge potential profit, some people have begun to doubt his sincerity. The film squirms into the can of worms that opened with Banksy’s popularity, and does acknowledge his alleged hypocrisies, but ultimately it argues in his favour. Banksy still finds ways to oppose the mainstream. He is famous enough that he could probably go public without facing legal consequences – if he wanted to, he could sell out and become filthy rich – but he hasn’t. As said in the film: “Refusing to reveal one’s identity is, in fact, refusing to play by society’s rules.”

Watching Banksy Most Wanted, one wonders what the artist himself would think of it? One even wonders whether he might have played a significant role in its creation. Ultimately, it paints him in an extremely flattering light. The music, while exciting and edgy, is so overly dramatic that it could come off as mocking; and the way many of the interviewees sensationalise this masked hero, fighting nobly against evil forces of control, they could just as easily be talking about Batman.

The magician knows that sometimes understanding the illusion is not worth losing the magic.

One of the key sources in the film is Steve Lazarides, who was Banksy’s agent and accomplice from 1997-2008. He openly admits that part of his role was creating fake news to throw the public off Banksy’s scent. The film explores several highly compelling conspiracy theories about Banksy’s identity which have emerged over the years, and the choice to include them all poses yet another.

If you’re Banksy and some aspiring journalist finally manages to dig up compelling evidence for who you really are, the best way to throw the public off might not be denial or cover-ups, but to provide them with an even juicier theory. There are so many compelling theories about Banksy that one lands up dismissing all of them. Might this film secretly intend to promote confusion to avert our attention from a true theory? Or might it be a double bluff just to mess with us?

While it’s fun to speculate, there’s no way to tell, and that’s probably for the best. The world is better off with Banksy in it, and he would cease to exist in a meaningful way the moment we knew who he is. Curiosity is an inherently human trait, but the magician knows that sometimes understanding the illusion is not worth losing the magic. DM/ML

Found a little-known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]

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