Thursday, December 27, 2007


I've had on my desk an article about Banksy from The Guardian (the British newspaper) about since July 2007, when I tore it out of the newspaper when I was in the UK. The article is by Jonathan Jones, and what struck me about it was the strength of his ire about what he might term Banksy's 'dumming down' of art.

I've read and re-read the article, thinking it would make an interesting peg on which to hang a blog post, and I have found myself feeling mildly irritated with Banksy myself, but I must admit that it's only in this last week and the run up to Christmas that I've found the mental energy to write about it, and I was prompted by the local reaction to Banksy's latest 'intervention' in Bethlehem: his use of graffiti in the town, ostensibly to drum up tourism in the area as a positive benefit to the local residents, has offended many, and some of Banksy's work has been defaced.

Jonathan Jones's argument is this: Banksy is a talented and humerous artist, but also complacent and conservative in his outlook. Yes, he can draw, and yes, he works hard at being a conceptual artist, and full marks to him for taking neither himself nor his subjects seriously. Banksy is, as Jones puts it, 'a popular creation: a great British antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can't understand'. 'Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh'.

I visited Banksy's own website,, to have a look at what the artist says about himself, and found it quite illuminating. Under the tab 'Manifesto' he uses a quote from one of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. The quote itself is many things: observant, admirable, compassionate, and its emphasis on the importance of individuality is fine - but somehow I find the context a bit distasteful and the effect overblown. Why use a moving, first-hand account of a the liberation of a concentration camp after the second world war as a 'manifesto' for jokey, politically pessimistic art? It's as if the artist known as Banksy is trying to show us how deep and meaningful he is, and in trying so hard, failing... I'm not a proponent of the idea that all references to the Holocaust are sacred and therefore un-useable to anyone who wasn't there at the time, but there just doesn't seem to me to be any meaningful link between Banksy and the de-humanisation of people observed by Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO.

I'm afraid that I find a similar disconnection in Banksy's work on the West Bank. He, along with a group of artists, made a trip to the wall in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank in 2005, completing 9 paintings on the wall itself. They show various things: 'views through the wall' of gorgeously coloured landscapes that contrast very effectively with the brutalist grey concrete, together with his more familiar stencils: a ladder reaching to the top of the wall, a girl floating upwards on a balloon, a dotted line with silhouetted scissors that suggests the phrase 'cut here'. This year he has painted six scenes around Bethlehem, in order to illustrate the hardships faced by residents of the occupied territories as well as to promote the area as a tourist destination. The Bethlehem paintings have fallen a bit flat as locals have objected to some of the images, despite the fact that the implied insults are directed at the Israelis rather than at them. And I guess that sums it up for me: Banksy 'did something' for people but possibly didn't think about the implications. Suggested references to people caricatured as donkeys or rats have caused offence, and locals have questioned whether humour is an appropriate response to the vicissitudes of occupation. So Banksy comes off the worse, looking superficial and ignorant rather than clever, and you have to wonder how much though went into the project... Sure, it's generated a heap of publicity for Banksy (remember the marketeer's mantra, "there's no such thing as bad publicity"), but it doesn't help to position him as a 'serious artist'. I wonder what comes next?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Settling In

I'm a bit like the cat who turns round and round seven times before sitting down: I need to fiddle with things in order to feel at home in my working space, and I've had fun over the last week sorting things out, rearranging, putting things together... with the result that process of shoe-horning my printmaking equipment into our rented office/studio space has created a really nice space in which I can work. I am surprised in a way: I thought all my stuff would impinge horribly on Michael's working space, and yet we've managed to carve the room up so that we can both breathe and walk around without falling over things (apart from his shoes in the middle of the carpet all the time, but that's another matter!).

Now it's just possible that you may not identify the cluttered picture above as being anything like a workable space or it may seem like unimaginable luxury. I'm just very glad that in the whole awful process of coming over here so much of my equipment survived intact... all I have to do now is to start using it again.

Around the whole palaver of moving studios, lots of things have been happening to do with the initiation of new projects. Two mail art collaborative projects seem likely to get up and running in the New Year, allowing me to work with a couple of very interesting artists in the Bristol area. More on that later! Meanwhile there is the faintest hint of a possibility that I might be able to start an artists' book exchange project with a larger group of artists here, each producing a limited edition of an artists' book for collation into sets. Each participant would receive a complete set of the books and a couple more sets might be available for sale or for acquisition by institutions that collect artists' books. My model for this is, roughly speaking, the model employed by Exchange Partners in Print Media, with whom I have been involved for a couple of years. But I think that artists' books are perhaps more complicated to edition than A3 prints in two dimensions, so I'm interested to see how the model would work with fewer participants (so that fewer books need to be produced in each edition), and with a multi-authored blog to go with the project. All three projects are in their infancy, but they each play to my skills as an initiator and facilitator, as well as holding out the prospect of making links, bridging distance and encouraging a critical dialogue.

One place that I'd love to go to, which will undoubtedly encourage critical dialogue, is Artspace Mackay's biennial Artists' Book Forum which will be held in February 2008. Oh how I'd love to go! Michael and I discussed it, but looking at the transport options of car (15 hours driving, on my own, at least and then there's the cost of petrol - probably $500 - plus overnight accommodation on the way up and the way back), train (various changes, probably 15 hours travelling time each way, and no difference in price!) and plane (slightly cheaper than the car and train options, and definitely quicker) plus accommodation plus conference fees plus dinner fees plus class fees plus food etc... and I reckon I'd be looking at the best part of $2,000 and I can't justify it. So I've set my sights on the 2010 conference in the hope that a) I will have saved up enough money to go by then and b) I might have done enough work in the intervening years to make it more immediately relevant to my practice! We live in hope, that's my philosophy of life.


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