Banksy Takes New York

Sophie Hayssen, Editor-In-Chief

Tucked away in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea, a small crowd gathered under the High Line to view what on any normal day would be considered a vacant lot. However on this day that forgotten nook of industrial debris had become home to the work of cultural icon and phenom street artist: Banksy.

In keeping with his reputation for infusing his art with political messages, the exhibit consisted of two large canvases. One depicted a figure in what appeared to be a burqa surrounded by a group of soldiers. The other showed a soldier surrounded by more figures in burqas.  For both paintings the soldiers were depicted in a heavy industrial grey while the people in burqas were painted in vibrant magentas and yellows. The contrast in color highlighted the inverse quality of the pieces as if one  was an inside out version of the other.   When placed side by side the pieces appeared to be a reflection of the West’s involvement in the Middle East and the resulting culture clash. In case the viewer had any doubt that the paintings were Banksy originals, hidden within the second painting, on the shirt of one of the characters is a small and subtle print of a young girl letting go of a balloon.  This image is a replica of one of Banksy’s more iconic works, and was a definitely a shivers-down-the-spine moment  for those familiar with Banksy’s work.

A little to the left of the two main pieces were the words DO YOU HAVE PURPOSE? scrawled in purple spray paint across the rough wall of the lot. This sentence seemed to go unnoticed by most of the visitors perhaps because it, unlike the rest of the piece, wasn’t surrounded by guards. Looking at it, one might not have known that it was part of the exhibit at all.

With Banksy nothing is for certain but looking at that piece I couldn’t help but think that it had to be part of the show. Unlike the larger paintings this piece wasn’t painted on a canvas but on a rough grey concrete wall. It was like the forgotten stepchild of the exhibit as everyone walked past it to see the more glamorous canvases. In other words, that hastily written sentence was probably the most “Banksy” thing about the exhibit since it—like its creator— played the role of the enigmatic outsider.

What was especially striking about the Banksy exhibit was that the art didn’t seem to stop with paintings but trickled into the entire presentation of the work. There was almost nothing, save a strip of caution tape, that separated the crowd from the lot, and every five minutes one of the four guards would lift it up and let a select few onlookers enter into the lot where the exhibit was. The ephemerality of the experience mixed with the industrial ambiance of the lot created a unique effect—one that can best be described as quintessentially Banksy.