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'Banking on Banksy': Rupa Huq observes the people, the pieces and the price tags

Devolved Parliament: 2009 oil-on-canvas painting by Banksy | Alamy

4 min read

Despite the jarring experience of viewing the work of Britain’s most famous anti-establishment artist in such an elitist setting, Banky’s art retains its power

It felt like all of hip young London was out in force the evening I availed myself of The House magazine’s invite to the Banking on Banksy exhibition, the debut attraction at a swish new heart-of-the-city-sited gallery.

The venue itself proved a feat to find for suburban old me in the dense maze of streets between Monument tube station (where I alighted) and Bank, which was most proximate – geddit, Banksy at Bank?

A crowd spilling out onto the pavement – interspersed with be-tuxedoed bouncers atop a red carpet – signalled that I’d found my destination. No one checked my guest list status and I was in.

Up and downstairs against white walls were inimitable Banksy creations, both familiar and not so familiar. Girl with Balloon, Flower Thrower and Rude Copper were all in there. 

On the ground floor, guests milled around the free bar under the watchful eye of the chimps populating the Commons’ green benches in the Devolved Parliament picture. A DJ pumped out banging house music to accompany proceedings.

Punters quaffed champers under images including that of a blue and red striped Tesco ‘value brand’ petrol bomb

The spiral staircase was accompanied by tourism-themed pictures – a twisted version of “visit London”, ditto Palestine. It led to the first floor, where bank notes of Diana, Princess of Wales – encased in what appeared to be glass blocks – and toy soldiers were displayed as 3D exhibits on a ledge as well as more canvasses. Being a zeitgisty kind of a guy, there were QR codes festooned around the place taking you to price tags for the works and an option to buy. Di-Faced Tenner is described as a “lithograph on paper, perspex framed”, each one dating from 2004, and will set you back three grand a pop.

Punters quaffed champers under images including that of a blue-and-red-striped Tesco value brand petrol bomb, the masked flower thrower picture presented in a triptych of three panels, as well as a crucified messiah weighed down with shopping bags. Subversions of historical moments abound, such as the 1989 iconic image of the Chinese military trying to crush student-led protests at Tiananmen Square. In Banksy’s interpretation of events, the man who stands defiantly in front of a line of tanks professing non-violent intervention bears a sign reading “GOLF SALE” in the style of the placards seen around London’s Oxford Street.

It’s great that the Red Eight Gallery has succeeded in pulling in a youthful demographic age group not normally known for frequenting art galleries, but they did feel pretty overwhelmingly white and middle-class, despite Banksy’s distinctly anti-establishment, non-elitist standpoint.

It may be because of how much of this felt already familiar, or how hot and stuffy it was, or because I went alone, or that along with champagne there was no juice option for teetotallers, or due to the red-eye flight I had to catch the next morning and packing left to be done, but I felt I’d spent more time walking around the streets between Monument and Bank than actually in the exhibition.

For anyone who happened to be in the square mile earlier this month, this free exhibition would have been a must. But not long after I had attended, the death of Queen Elizabeth II was announced, and the exhibition has since finished. 

Given the exhibition was so popular, it would be great if in the future Banksy’s work could be displayed for longer – perhaps in a more egalitarian venue better suited to the convictions of the artist. In the words of the man himself: “Think outside the box, collapse the box and take a fucking knife to it.” Apart from nowadays I’d add, “remember to put it out with the recycling” – not a bad dictum. 

Rupa Huq is Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton

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