Banksy's secret Bristol show explodes into life

By Ben Miller | 16 June 2009
Exhibition: Banksy Versus Bristol Museum, Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, until August 31 2009

"Owing to the nature of the building and the collections it is important that we limit the number of people in the Museum at any one time," warns the promo material accompanying Banksy Versus Bristol Museum. "These restrictions sometimes lead to queues forming – waiting times can be up to one hour, but it is worth the wait!"

The anonymous graffiti superstar is perhaps the only artist who could cause excited exclamation marks in a press release, and the battle the exhibition moniker suggests is surely an easy triumph for him. A wrecked ice cream van dominates the centre of the space and stuffed animals run amok as the council-run floorboards teem with fashion-conscious art fans.

Kept secret from council officials and exhibition staff (they were told filming was going on, and one guessed it was Harry Potter), the show was set up in a matter of days, stuffing rooms with more than 100 "artefacts" as the mystery Bristolian gives something back with a fully paid-for romp through the Edwardian Museum of the city which inspired him.

"This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off," he told the BBC, alluding to a relationship with the local council which has occasionally seen his favourite son status replaced with scorn and rebuke. "This show is my vision of the future, to which many people will say, 'you should have gone to Specsavers.'"

As usual, most of it starts from a point of silliness and surrealism, frequently becoming more moving and pointed according to how long you spend looking and contemplating. A poverty-stricken, waif-like child sports a t-shirt proclaiming "I hate Mondays", animatronics position CCTV cameras in bird's nests and morph chickens into fried nuggets, and the biblical Madonna tunes into her iPod as she cradles her child.

Banksy reckons he's "remixed" the old-fashioned Museum, sneaking subversive anomalies among the traditional displays of natural history and classical art, challenging his audience to a game of hide-and-seek.

It's already a crushing critical success. "You would have to be the snootiest of critics not to be swept away by the sheer exuberance of this show," wrote Miranda Sawyer in the Guardian. The Telegraph said it was "humorous and inventive" and "deeply moving", calling it "as cheeky and renegade as a piece of illegal graffiti."

Negotiations are rumoured to have begun as long ago as last autumn, but top-level organisers claim they have had no direct contact with their famous visitor. "At one point I worried that it was all a con, and the whole thing was just an elaborate heist," admitted Director Kate Brindley. Banksy is thought to have called in, presumably merging into the masses with effortless ease.

More than 8,000 people visited the Queen's Road site during the opening weekend, including Damien Hirst, who got to see one of his paintings stencilled with a rat. A one-in, one-out policy had to be adopted, and within hours websites were full of pictures, freed by the artist's resolutely anti-copyright philosophy.

"The people in Bristol have always been very good to me – I decided the best way to show my appreciation was by putting a bunch of old toilets and some live chicken nuggets in their museum," added the artist.

"Maybe one day graffiti art will hang in lots of museums and be viewed in the same way as other modern art, although personally I hope it never sinks that low."

Open 10am-5pm. Call 0117 922 3571 or visit the show online for details.

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