- The Guardian, Saturday 13 June 2009
Banksy unveiled his largest ever project yesterday: Bansky versus Bristol Museum, a full-scale infiltration and "remix" of Bristol City Museum and its works. The museum directors were approached by the world's most famous graffiti artist last autumn to see if they would be happy for him to stage a show of more than 100 works in Bristol's establishment gallery.
At least, Banksy's people approached them. Kate Brindley, the city council's director of museums and galleries, confessed that in months of preparation, including the complete shutdown of the museum for 36 hours last week for installation, she had never met the artist. "At one point, I worried that it was all a con, and the whole thing was just an elaborate heist," she said.
Not to worry: the museum's treasures remain. They have just been given a different context.
The City Museum is an Edwardian institution, complete with stuffed animals in cases, classical statues and old master paintings. It is the kind of place you are dragged around on school trips and Banksy, who is from Bristol, clearly knows it well. Several of his interventions are small and affectionate, like the little rat with a backpack crouching among the stuffed ducks in the Tales From the Riverbank case, or the hash-pipe popped into a display of pottery.
But such dinkiness is the exception. Much of Banksy's work - and there is an enormous amount here - is more obvious, and more obviously anti-establishment. He takes on every contemporary icon, from Simon Cowell - pictured doing some X-Factor-style judging of Degas' ballerinas - to the Houses of Parliament, in a large painting with MPs replaced by chimpanzees. One canvas has riot police skipping through a field. Cultural and social emblems aren't exactly dismantled. Instead, Banksy pulls their pants down and runs away.
What fun! You would have to be the snootiest of critics not to be swept away by the sheer exuberance of this show. The entrance hall is a riot, packed full of work that plays with its environment. Visitors are greeted by a Stonehenge-type arch, made up of graffitied portable toilets. A burnt-out ice-cream van replaces the inquiries counter, with a riot policeman rocking on a carousel horse. Classical statues, on second glance, are laden with designer shopping bags or strapped in a suicide bomber's belt. An ancient biplane transports a Guantánamo inmate.
Some of this work recalls the Chapman Brothers, with their dark humour, intricacy and insistence on revealing the nastiest parts of human nature. But Jake and Dinos are very "art", steeped in learning and reference points. Banksy is more playful and direct; more hit - or miss - then move on. You don't need to appreciate Goya to understand his work.
The second and third ground-floor rooms are less of a reaction to the museum, more a showcase of Banksy work. The first shows his recent New York "pet shop" exhibition of animatronics, with fishfingers appearing to swim in fish tanks and CCTV cameras acting like birds in nests. Spooky and very funny, a comment about how we treat living creatures.
The third room is chock-a-block: with canvases, a collapsed wall, a paint line across the floor and, most intriguingly, a recreation of Banksy's studio. You could stand and look for ages. Here is the stencil for his girl-with-heart-balloon graff-pic; here is a trolley with spray cans and paint. And yet more jokes. A picture of Davina McCall with an African child has speech balloons added. "I feel your pain," says Davina. "Please get off my foot," says the child. On a filing cabinet, the drawers are labelled: Good Ideas, Bad Ideas, Other People's Ideas, Pornography. A small scribble reads: I need to escape from the relentless escapism.
Upstairs, and you embark on a treasure hunt: Where's the Banksy? Like his previous (uninvited) infiltrations of art galleries, or his outdoor graffiti work, you find yourself looking carefully, so as not to miss a trick. When you spot a new work, you feel like shouting: Found it!
Paintings, some surrealist, some silly, are tucked in among the curly-framed Rubens, Turners and Bellinis. A portrait of a burka-clad figure in bra-and-panties pinny, wielding a barbecue burger-flipper might prove controversial, but really, there's not much to get cross about. Is it worth losing your temper over a Madonna and Child with iPod added? Or a Damien Hirst spot painting being painted over by a rat?
There is so much in this show it is hard to get to grips with everything in one visit. Not to worry: it is open until 31 August and free to all, including the city council. Despite joking about taxpayers' money being used to hang his pictures "rather than scrape them off", Banksy has paid for the lot, from installation to extra security. It is, he says, his thank-you to a city that nurtured him.
Actually, it feels like a carnival, a party. By putting his work in such an inoffensively respectable institution, Banksy is able to both have his cake and shove it in the faces of those who made it. He is celebrating the stuffiness of the institution while teasing it. Either you're offended by his cheek, which is the point, or you love the mischief, which is also the point.
In the end, wherever his work may be, it's the subject matter that gives it its bite: the establishment, whether art, politics, celebrity, police, religion, war. Banksy doesn't make so-called fine art, but something more direct. His work articulates his generation's cynical, shrugging wit; the ability to be both angry with and take the mickey out of the rotten ways of those in charge.
His targets might be obvious. But that doesn't mean they are not worth shooting at.