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Basel exhibition throws light on Swiss Banksy secrecy

The stencil mural ‘Aachoo!!’, which appeared on the side of a house in Bristol, where Banksy is believed to be from, in December 2020. The owners of the house apparently pulled out of selling the property after the mural appeared and was confirmed by Banksy as one of his. Keystone / Jon Rowley

More than 100 original works by British street artist Banksy are going on display in Basel next month. The art, which includes a sculpture and 31 silkscreen prints, covers 20 years of satirical and subversive activity.

This content was published on February 20, 2021 - 11:00
Polina Sosnova

Covid restrictions in Switzerland are set to be lifted at the end of February and several major exhibitions are scheduled to open. One of these is Building Castles in the SkyExternal link at Messe Basel, which features original works by Banksy entirely from private collections.

Visitors to the unauthorised exhibition – the organisers claim the artist himself is not involved – will have the opportunity to trace the transformation of street art into a recognised art form by viewing a retrospective of Banksy’s career.

It includes artefacts Banksy created as part of the 36-day Dismaland project – a “family theme park unsuitable for children”, as the artist himself put it – which he created in the British seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in 2015.

The works examine “capitalism, war, social control and freedom”, said the organisers of the exhibition, which aims to explore the role of the contemporary artist in a culture shaped largely by the mass media.

For example, Banksy’s identity remains unconfirmed. This approach to creativity is also taken by the successful Italian author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante.

Vandalism and its opposite

Banksy has made art history by turning vandalism into its opposite. In London, the police are often the first to show up at the site of a new work to cover a wall worth almost £1 million (CHF1.25 million) with a sheet of plastic – protecting the vandal from vandals.

In the mid-2000s a new Banksy painting would appear on the streets every fortnight; today they are rarer and disappear almost immediately after being sighted “in the wild”.

In October 2018 a painting of a girl releasing a balloon was auctioned at Sotheby’s for more than £1 million. Immediately after the gavel came down, a shredder built into the picture frame cut the bottom half of the painting into pieces, doubling its price. This painting, Balloon Girl (2006), later renamed Love is in the Bin by its creator, will be shown in Basel.

Reproduction of 'Girl with Balloon' – before it was half-shredded – on display at The Art of Banksy exhibition at the Tesla Soft Gallery in Budapest in January 2020. Keystone / Zsolt Szigetvary

Scandal and provocation are Banksy’s constant companions. Having been nominated for an Oscar for Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), a documentary about the spirit of street art, he didn’t attend the ceremony because he was refused permission to wear a mask. Now in the age of Covid, such a ban seems strangely ironic. His name is also associated with The Walled Off Hotel – a pun on the Waldorf – on the Israeli-Palestinian border.

Banksy once laid out his canvases near Central Park in New York which were each worth $200,000-$300,000 (CHF180,000-CHF270,000) and asked an old man to sell them for $80. Only eight paintings were bought by passers-by, but Banksy made all the headlines. The meaning of the stunt was clear: the value of a work on the contemporary art market is a social construct of a speculative nature, the parameters of which have long been independent of any rational factors.

‘Building Castles in the Sky’ is scheduled to open in Messe Basel on March 1 and will run until the end of May.

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