4.7 / Review

From Miami: Banksy Out of CONTEXT

By Temisan Okpaku January 17, 2013

Thumbnail: Banksy. Wet Dog, 2007; stencil and spraypaint on stone taken from Bethlehem; 79 x 63 in. Installation view, Banksy Out of CONTEXT, CONTEXT Art Miami, 2012. Courtesy of Keszler Gallery, New York, in association with Bankrobber Gallery, London. Photo: Temisan Okpaku.
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Banksy Out of CONTEXT was shown at CONTEXT Art Miami, a new offshoot of the long established Art Miami fair that runs concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach. The show featured cutout murals taken from Bethlehem, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the United Kingdom. The stencil paintings on stone and concrete reportedly weighing between one and three thousand pounds each were displayed behind velvet ropes flanked by security guards. These same works were for sale in the $450,000 price range at a 2011 Southampton show also by Banksy Out of CONTEXT organizers Stephan Keszler (Keszler Gallery) and his collaborator Robin Barton (London’s Bankrobber Gallery). However, since the handling service and interlocutor, Pest Control, refused to authenticate the works due to their objection to removing it from the street in order to sell it, buyers stayed away. Issues of site specificity and property rights aside, for Banksy to admit authorship would be a confession to criminal activity. Additionally, in deference to both Banksy’s and Pest Control’s positions on these issues auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury do not auction this street artwork.

Given the challenge that Banksy’s street art presents to commerce, why bring such site-specific pieces to a fair and not try to sell it? Are we to understand this to be an altruistic act? Keszler has stated that he intends for the work to go to a “very important museum.”.1 Such action seems to be an attempt to manipulate and increase the price of work when it is sold by fueling controversy. Some parties, including Marc Schiller of the street art website Wooster Collective, have called for a boycott of the CONTEXT Art Miami fair, the logic being that paying the ten to twenty dollars for a ticket to see the work only rewards the promoters’ bad behavior.

Even so, in an attempt to rebuff skeptics and to “clarify the facts for the record,” Keszler has written. Neither the Keszler Gallery nor Bankrobber Gallery have ever encouraged or been involved in any way with the removal of street works by the artist known as Banksy. All works appearing in the exhibition had been removed from their original locations by the owners long ago and were later offered to us for this show.2

Barton has gone on to say, “ I would view [removal of Banksy work] as grave-robbing.”3 And the wall text that accompanied Banksy Out of CONTEXT stated Keszler and Barton’s aims as entering “into a discussion about the validity of this emerging art form and the cultural, political and social meaning that can be derived from his works when taken Out of CONTEXT.” Despite these comments, how can selling the work after it has been removed from its original location for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which Keszler and Barton attempted at the Southampton show, not encourage the removal of other street works? Can one be against “grave-robbing,” yet profit from selling the corpse?

Banksy. Stop and Search, 2007; stencil and spraypaint on stone taken from Bethlehem; 83 in. x 63 in. Installation view, Banksy Out of CONTEXT, CONTEXT Art Miami, 2012. Courtesy of Keszler Gallery in association with Bankrobber Gallery. Photo: Temisan Okpaku.
Banksy. Out of Bed Rat, 2002; stencil and spraypaint on stucco taken from Bethlehem, 180 x 96 in.; installation view, Banksy Out of CONTEXT, CONTEXT Art Miami, 2012. Courtesy of Keszler Gallery< New York, in association with Bankrobber Gallery, London. Photo: Temisan Okpaku.

But, simply put, there is very little value in taking work out of context. Despite the organizers’ comments, context is not simply the physical location of a work; the artist’s intention, the materials used, the work’s scale and form, and the artist’s personal narrative can all be aspects of a piece’s context. Whatever its appearance, materials, or tone, street art is concerned with the function of the symbolic structures and systems embedded in the material locations where it exists. This is underscored by the networked dissemination of the medium’s digital documentation. An online photograph of Wet Dog (2007) that includes some of its original environment leads viewers to ponder the politics of culturally based warfare and illusions of difference regarding identity, both individually and collectively. But removed from this context, the image is just one of a dog shaking off water. Stop and Search (2007), its image of a soldier being patted down by a young girl, is more compositionally self contained, its playful yet unsettling imagery set-off by the sporadic bullet holes that riddle the concrete. 

Many have asked what’s the harm in showing site-specific work out of context when it was created for public appreciation —even if it may have been intended to be critical of the system of consumption that now covets it. However, this work is not meant to be cut from its surroundings or prescribed a financial equivalent and traded among private collectors. Banksy creates work on walls owned by other people, and what those people choose to do with their walls is their own business. It would follow that dealers who legally acquire such work from property owners also have the right to exchange the work again—and yet Keszler’s and Barton’s staging, restoration, and textual justification of their display has gone beyond the act of curation. It resembles something closer to outright appropriation and, in the end, the show was a transparent marketing scheme attempting to disguise itself as an earnest investigation into how a work of art’s meaning shifts when it is taken out of context.

 

 

Banksy Out of CONTEXT was on view at CONTEXT Art Miami, in Miami, Florida, from December 3 to 8, 2012.

Notes

  1. Daniel Chang, “Five Banksy Works in dispute and not for sale at Art Miami,” Miami Herald, December 3, 2012, http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/12/03/3125154_p2/five-banksy-works-in-dispute.html
  2. Nick Leighton, “Stephan Keszler Would Like to Clarify the Facts for the Record,” Curbed Hamptons, September 6, 2011, http://hamptons.curbed.com/archives/2011/09/06/stephan_keszler_would_like_to_clarify_the_facts_for_the_record.php
  3. Guy Adams, “Hacked Off: The art show that’s driven Banksy up the wall,” The Independent, September 3, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/hacked-off-the-art-show-thats-driven-banksy-up-the-wall-2348433.html

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