CUT & RUN: 25 Years Card Labour
Words by Greg McIndoe
There is an iconic statue in the city centre of Glasgow; it’s officially called the Duke of Wellington but is much better known as “the statue with a traffic cone on its head”.
Despite several attempts by the local government to deter this addition, residents of Glasgow have consistently kept a traffic cone atop the statue since the 1980s. It’s something Glaswegians – myself included – are oddly proud of.
We’re not the only ones who are amused by this unique landmark. World-famous street artist Banksy has described it as his “favourite work of art in the UK”. In fact, it’s the reason he has chosen to hold his first solo exhibition in 14 years in Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, which is located right next to the cone-capped monument.
CUT & RUN celebrates “25 years card labour” by revealing for the first time the stencils used to create some of Banksy’s most iconic artworks. The show is a rare chance to glimpse the process of one of the world’s most elusive and fast-moving artists.
When you think of Banksy, you imagine him spray painting in the dead of night and running down alleyways to avoid revealing his identity. You don’t imagine him chatting with high-brow galleries and designing floor plans for a formal exhibition of his work. In true Banksy style, however, this show is anything but formal.
Before you have even caught sight of a stencil, you are guided by Banksy’s voice in the first of a series of conversational signage.
“While the unauthorised Banksy shows might look like sweepings from my studio floor, CUT & RUN really is the actual sweepings from my studio floor.”
It instantly feels alien to read Banksy writing in the first person. He has acquired his immense fame solely through others talking about his work. After maintaining an intriguing air of silence for all these years, Banksy has decided now is the time to share his side of the story.
Confession time: I don’t usually read every caption at an exhibition. I’m a skimmer. As excited as I was to see the show, I was surprised at just how much Banksy’s flippant tone of voice pulled me in; I was transfixed by every single one of his witty words.
The exhibition includes an abundance of authentic artefacts and ephemera. First is the artist’s own desk which introduces the theme of the show – it’s a studio tour by a man who uses the street as his studio. You’re invited in to root through an archive of sketches, materials, tools and photographed work while the artist chats to you, sharing anecdotes from each project and quick quips about the people he’s worked with (and sometimes against).
As you shuffle your way around (it was fully booked when I visited so quite tightly packed with visitors of all generations and dialects), you catch a glimpse of the process behind countless projects from a long and prolific career. The stars of the show are of course the huge stencils Banksy has used to create his artworks. Each one has been colourfully painted and cleverly hung to make the most of these slices of art history.Your eyes travel from the battered stencils to the shadows they are casting, dancing on the wall behind, and then up to the Gallery of Modern Art’s vast intricately decorated ceiling. The juxtaposition of such vastly different but equally valuable art is quite the spectacle.
“I’ve kept these stencils hidden away for years, mindful they could be used as evidence in a charge of criminal damage. But that moment seems to have passed, so now I’m exhibiting them in a gallery as works of art. I’m not sure which is the greater crime.”
I can’t have been more than five minutes into my visit when I overheard a conversation between a couple of the security staff. Two young boys had been escorted out as they had only come inside to go straight to the exclusive gift shop and buy some merchandise to resell on the street for a higher price. I can’t help but feel Banksy would have applauded, or at least laughed off, this act of youthful entrepreneurship. The security guard, however, sounded livid in a way that only a Glaswegian woman can.
As the remaining, rule-abiding visitors carry on, we are introduced to all kinds of projects, some of which I already knew of and some I didn’t. Of course, I’d seen the viral moment Banksy shredded an artwork at an auction (an intricate infographic explains exactly how he pulled it off) and the vest he designed for Stormzy’s Glastonbury performance. However, I wasn’t aware of the controversial opening sequence depicting a sweatshop he designed for The Simpsons or the truck full of farmyard animal soft toys he drove to a slaughterhouse in New York.
My favourite artwork on display isn’t actually by Banksy. It’s a painting by landscape artist Peter Brown showing one of the streets where an iconic Banksy popped up. In fairness to him, the blurb next to it in which Banksy explains that the story which unfolds around his work is the real art.
The further into the exhibition you go, the more frequent and enlightening the accompanying text becomes. It’s like Banksy has been holding all of these anecdotes in for so long and, now he has started sharing them, he can’t stop.
As you near the end, the big questions are answered. Why did he start in the first? Heartbreak and revenge. What is street art to him? Art that can be viewed from a moving vehicle. Why does he still do it? It helps him sleep. Each of these answers is delivered as frankly and funnily as the last. You feel yourself warming to the narrator as if he is casually wandering around with you – and for all we know he could be.
Fittingly for a Banksy exhibition, you exit through the gift shop. As you do so, you can unlock the pouches which your phones have been locked in for the duration of your visit (I have had to write this entire article based on frantic notes I typed out on the train because I forgot to bring a notebook – hopefully you didn’t notice). While there are so many things I am sure I would have taken photos of if I were allowed, I was glad to be banned from my phone during my visit. It was refreshing to be fully present while looking at a show you hadn’t seen any spoilers for on TikTok.
CUT & RUN celebrates Banksy’s unparalleled career in a mysterious way that only he can. Each artwork on show is as iconic, rebellious and witty as the cone-topped statue sitting outside which brought the exhibition to Glasgow. The fact that the most radical thing he could do after 25 years was to place his art inside an art gallery speaks to just how unique a trail Banksy has blazed.
CUT & RUN: 25 Years Cards Labour by Banksy is on until the 28th of August 2023 at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. For more information, visit cutandrun.co.uk
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