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Over two weeks ago, a story about an excavated Banksy in Berlin ricocheted across the global media. Most of the coverage featured closely cropped smiley faced riot police and the name “Banksy” screamed in the media headlines. From the tone of the coverage and the emphasis on the discovery of a lost Banksy most people probably assumed it was another case of an opportunist commercial gallery swiping a street art work and displaying it in order to make a potential profit. What many people — and news outlets — didn’t realize was that the glimpse of Banksy’s “Every Picture Tells a Lie!” (2003) was only part of a much larger work by artist Brad Downey. The photo by Reuters photographer Tobias Schwarz that was beamed around the world erased Downey from the frame and positioned a woman with baby front and center, as if to anesthetize any political bite that Banksy’s work featuring a triangle of riot police and bloody letters might have.
When the work appeared on the front page of the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Downey and the title of the work was not even mentioned, instead it was labeled “Banksy in Berlin.” Downey’s name was often omitted from the coverage even though the Berlin-based American artist is well-known in Europe and elsewhere for hacking urban environments and creating visual interventions in mundane cityscapes.
In 2008, he, along with 11 other street artists, was contracted by the Lacoste clothing brand to celebrate the label’s 75th anniversary at KaDeWe, a famous Berlin shopping mall. For his contribution he sprayed green paint on the windows of KaDeWe, which the mall owners charged was vandalism even though the artist asserted that it was simply a fulfillment of his contract. In his latest work, Downey is pretty amazed at the strange coverage and echoes Banksy’s famed but doesn’t discuss the work.
“That’s the strange thing with the way the press proceeded to report on the work, since [the Banksky piece] is only part of the work,” he said in a Skype interview with Hyperallergic.
The Bansky mural that is part of “What Lies Beneath … ” was original from an exhibition in 2003 that Downey took part in. The show has a special significance for the artist, who remembers the event as the first exhibition he was ever invited to show in and the catalyst for his first trip to Europe. The current work has a very personal meaning for the artist, who also has a studio in the same building as the gallery. “It was a pure moment in my life and all my friends were also invited and it felt like this kind of moment which from that point was getting progressively muddied,” he explains about a feeling he wanted to recreate in the work.
From the photographs of the installation, Downey’s latest work looks like the ruins of some contemporary ruin with shades of Pompeii, the spots of the walls where art was painted for the 2003 show are carved out and only one wall is left untouched because, the artist says, photos were hanging there and they left no mark.
When Downey talks about the work he mentioned that he sees it as part of a history of appropriation and visual trickery, like Marcel Duchamp’s playful “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) or Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953).
“It was an attempt to see if I could appropriate an installation, first off, and to see how the idea of copyright and ownership when appropriating an installation from an older installation,” he says. “…[I was] working in restoration in a contemporary way. It wasn’t necessarily about Banksy, but it was the obvious choice to make a critique of copyright. He’s an artist appropriating images.”
The idea of “What Lies Beneath…” was been something the artist has been pondering for years. When he finally decided to create the work he reviewed a DVD of the show and found the spots where the walls were painted. He then hired a restorer from the Czech Republic. After the restoration was complete he painted the room red as the work felt incomplete without that touch. He says it made it feel more cinematic, though I suggested it made it felt like a Roman ruin. “I was thinking more cinematic, but could be Roman as well,” he replied.
The work is exhibited in the Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien, which is a non-commercial government institution that exhibits contemporary art with a focus on current social and cultural issues. The building itself has a contentious history. It has been squatted for decades and it is the location of many leftist political actions, including just a month ago when protesters clashed with police because of the justice denied to Carlo Guiliani, who was an Italian anti-globalist who was shot at the 2001 G8 summit. “I saw molotov cocktails thrown from my window just a few weeks ago,” Downey said during our September 14 interview.
All the politics of the site, the memory of the space and the implications for the idea of excavating a moment from the recent past have not been part of the media coverage at all. The idea that a lost Banksy, which may be worth a lot of money, is being recovered is what drove the narrative.
One of the amazing aspect of the story of “What Lies…” is that it encapsulizes how the corporate media, which drives the public conversation, often manipulates and omits large swathes of the narrative. In the case of this work, Downey was also taking aim at the art world and the hyperbole of the art market, and strangely the media fell into the trap of broadcasting a distorted the story.
“It’s an exaggerated example of how the art market … can manipulate the reality of the situation in order to generate economics,” he says. “I think this work is very much about that. You can already see in how the media dealt with it. The title is explicitly about lying and looking beneath the surface and most of the time the title isn’t even mentioned and the name isn’t mentioned … and the content is completely overlooked. It supports the work in a way. If you want to apply that to something more serious than art, such as politics, than it’s a really good example of how facts can be erased in a few days.”
Though in this case the media didn’t only omit facts but fabricated ones to make it juicier. Downey says flat out that he never said that he may whitewash the work after the show closes on October 23. Yet the first reporter to interview him about the work manufactured a dialogue that never took place. The artist thinks that the conversation around the idea of selling the work is one of the most interesting parts of the work. The BBC coverage even suggested that the real value was not in Downey’s art work but the fact that it incorporates a real live Banksy.
“[The idea of whitewashing it] is something created by the media, because even in the articles they ask me what I’m going to do in the end and if I’m going to paint it white, … shrugging my shoulders, but I never said that. I’ve never said that to anyone,” he says.
Downey has a knack at navigating the gray area in our culture, where sensationalism and culture freely mix in a vortex of ideas that are partnered with media-friendly imagery. Part of the success of his art lies in the way they live, grow and mutate in people’s imagination. The art is more than the sense of an object it is an idea, and those have a tendency to go viral in our culture that is hungry for the next new thing, no matter how true.
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