Need Talent to Exhibit in Museums? Not This Prankster
By RANDY KENNEDY
Published: March 24, 2005 New York Times
It was not nearly as dangerous as the time he sneaked into the elephant pen at the London Zoo and scrawled a graffiti message from the point of view of an elephant: "I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring."
And it was not quite as elaborate as the stunt last year in which he spirited a stuffed rat wearing wraparound sunglasses into the Natural History Museum in London and mounted it on a wall.
But over the last two weeks, a shadowy British graffiti artist who calls himself Banksy has carried his own humorous artworks into four New York institutions - the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History - and attached them with some sort of adhesive to the walls, alongside other paintings and exhibits. Similar stunts at the Louvre and the Tate museum have earned the artist - who will not reveal his real name - a following in Europe, where he has had successful gallery shows and sold thousands of books of his artwork. But his graffiti has also landed him in legal trouble.
Elyse Topalian, a spokeswoman for the Met, said that museum officials believed that a painting found there - a small, gold-framed portrait of a woman wearing a gas mask - was hung surreptitiously on March 13. Guards noticed it and removed it from a wall near other paintings in the American wing, she said. Ms. Topalian added that no damage had been done to the wall or to other artworks.
The museum does not look kindly on such unauthorized additions to its walls. "I think it's fair to say that it would take more than a piece of Scotch tape to get a work of art into the Met," Ms. Topalian said.
Sally Williams, a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn Museum, said a painting - in this case, of a red-coated colonial-era military officer holding a spray-paint can, with antiwar graffiti in the background - was discovered and removed on March 16. The painting was hung between two others from the museum's permanent collection in the American Identities galleries on the fifth floor. She said that the painting was now sitting in the museum's conservation lab and that its fate was uncertain.
"I think the immediate issue was just to get it out of the gallery and tucked away somewhere where it couldn't be seen," she said.
An official at the Museum of Modern Art said that a painting of a can of cream-of-tomato soup was found hanging in a third-floor elevator lobby and taken down on March 17. A spokesman for the Museum of Natural History, where the graffiti artist apparently hung a glass-encased beetle (a real one) equipped with fighter jet wings, missiles and a satellite dish, confirmed the incident by e-mail but did not say when the work was found.
Asked whether the incidents raised security concerns for them, officials at the institutions said no, adding that they believed that they had sufficient numbers of guards and other monitoring systems.
Pictures of the illicit art installations, apparently taken by an accomplice of Banksy, were posted yesterday at woostercollective.com, a site that has become a repository of pictures of graffiti and other street and urban art. Some of the pictures show a bearded man in an overcoat and hat, looking a little like Inspector Jacques Clouseau, hanging his paintings in the museums.
Marc Schiller, a founder of the Web site, said the pictures were sent to him yesterday along with a statement from the artist that said: "This historic occasion has less to do with finally being embraced by the fine-art establishment and is more about the judicious use of a fake beard and some high-strength glue."
Mr. Schiller said the artist had returned to London and would not consent to a telephone interview. But in an e-mail exchange yesterday afternoon, conducted with Mr. Schiller's help, Banksy - who prefers to be called not an artist, but a "quality vandal" - said he decided to invade those four New York museums for a simple reason.
"I've wandered round a lot of art galleries thinking, 'I could have done that,' so it seemed only right that I should try," he wrote. "These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see."
He said he had entered all of the museums during normal visitors' hours. Asked how he was able to hang his works without being noticed by museum guards or security cameras, Banksy responded rather opaquely. "You just have to glue on a fake beard and move with the times," he said.
He added that he had thought about storming the Guggenheim, but was too intimidated. "I would have had to appear between two Picassos," he wrote. "And I'm not good enough to get away with that."
All images below courtesy of Wooster Collective.
Banksy carrying a wrapped painting, which he hung on a wall at the Brooklyn Museum. It was discovered and removed on March 16, 2005.
Banksy attaching a painting to the wall at the Brooklyn Museum.
A visitor, left, looking at the artwork at the Brooklyn Museum. The painting shows a framed portrait of a frock-coated military officer holding a spray paint can, with anti-war graffiti in the background.