Banksy 360º, the World’s Most Elusive Street Artist exhibit in the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park, presents the revolutionary artwork of the anonymous English artist known as Banksy. This unauthorized exhibit was created in collaboration with Bristol, England-based author Marc Everton, who has written a book about Banksy’s work. It is the first major immersive art exhibit showcasing a contemporary artist to visit Ottawa and shares the venue with the Van Gogh 360º Exhibit. You can visit the Banksy 360º exhibit on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and the Van Gogh exhibit on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Mystery and controversy surround Banksy, an enigmatic English street artist and documentary filmmaker who has never revealed his identity. Many people believe that Banksy is Robin Gunningham, a white, middle-aged male artist from Bristol, thanks to convincing evidence compiled by several people. Painting and stencilling images on buildings and other public surfaces is vandalism and a criminal act, which may be one reason the artist has not stepped forward. “If graffiti changed anything—it would be illegal” is the message incorporated in one work adorned with rats dropping from the sky in small parachutes.
Banksy emerged in the 1990s in Bristol, England and quickly achieved international recognition. He has stealthily created street images accompanied by graffiti in cities across the world, including Toronto. I knew little about Banksy before viewing this exhibit, which offers revealing insights into the artist’s vision. I left with an admiration for the artist’s courage in the expression of ideas, not all of which I agreed with or even understood. In the early years of his career, the artist often hid from police who pursued him while creating artwork. As Banksy satirically puts it, “It takes a lot of guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no one else believes in like peace and justice and freedom.”
The entrance of the exhibit features several informative panels with helpful information about the artist’s activities and artwork. It includes better-known works such as the girl with the red, heart-shaped balloon. Voiceovers provide a digitally manipulated voice for the Banksy quotes that lent an anonymous and slightly ominous quality to them, while different voices represent quotes from the media and critics.
Banksy delights in taking direct aim at issues like war, consumerism, the British political system and notably the monarchy, climate change inaction, and societal norms including the mistreatment of children. While many messages are extremely hard-hitting, Banksy uses dark humour, whimsy, and jarring images of children, animals like rats and apes, and people to make a point. Most images are predominantly black with muted accents, although some colourful images such as an elephant that blends into the wallpaper behind it incorporate vivid colour.
The images are presented on a state-of-the-art, 9,000-square-foot projection imaging space on 16-feet-high screens. They are presented as an animated projection image that surrounds you and covers the floor of the exhibit. The images can move from one end of the exhibit to the other, sometimes appearing to be a mirror image on opposite walls.
Aside from Banksy’s most famous image of the girl with a heart-shaped balloon, standout images included Queen Elizabeth portrayed as an ape, a boy that appeared to be holding out his tongue to catch snowflakes that turned out to be toxic waste, two kissing cops, riot police with smiley faces, and a workman disassembling a star meant to represent the United Kingdom during Brexit. The most memorable animated sequence for me was a group of prehistoric hunters who threw spears at multiple shopping carts.
Children had fun chasing images on the floor of the exhibit. Other participants enjoyed posing in front of some images, such as ones making it look like they held heart-shaped balloons. I guess the visitors had not read the stern message from the artist: “This is not a photo opportunity.”
Like Haitian-American street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose to prominence in the 1980s, some of Banksy’s works fetch millions of dollars. Never one to shy away from strong opinions, Banksy has even attacked the Canadian design aesthetic. In an essay on his website prior to its opening in 2014, Banksy described the design of the One World Trade Center in New York as “vanilla” and “something they would build in Canada.” Ouch.
Some critics say Banksy’s work is too obvious. Others believe he is a put on or has sold out. This exhibit does not directly define Banksy as a vandal, a charlatan, an activist or a genius. It is up to us, gentle viewers, to decide that for ourselves.
The Banksy 360º Exhibit continues four days a week until October 7. The tickets have a timed entry and a limited number of participants are admitted. Purchase tickets here.