For a short spell last month the slow procession of tourists lost somewhere between the bohemian dream version of Notting Hill portrayed in guidebooks and the creeping nightmare found in the questionable reality of the streets around the tube station conjured up a new catchphrase question to ask trapped locals. Instead of 'Where's Portobello?' they asked 'Where's Banksy?'. They weren't foolish enough to be chasing after the notoriously elusive graffiti maestro himself, of course, merely the secret guerilla gallery where his 'Crude Oils' were being exhibited. The temporary gallery turned out to be on street-level in a prime shopping location on hyper-expensive Westbourne Grove. The first time I wandered down there I encountered sixty or seventy Banksy-spotters from various countries queuing to be let into the exhibition four or five at a time, while a man in a red fez distributed Banksy postcards featuring Kate Moss in an update of Warhol's silk-screened Marilyn.
The press release labelled 'Crude Oils' a "gallery of remixed masterpieces, vandalism and vermin". Rats were the reason for the entry limitations. About two hundred of the furry little creatures were loose on the gallery floor. A disclaimer had to be signed in case you were to slip on the rat shit or the rats themselves. Several rats crawled in and out of the exposed ribcage and neck of a seated skeleton dressed in a museum guard's blue uniform. The smell of rat shit permeated the streets outside (and presumably the adjacent hairdressers and restaurant). It was the first time I'd smelt a gallery before I'd seen it. It was like a miniature version of the square in Delft when Werner Herzog released eleven thousand rats into the streets when filming Nosferatu.
Initially, I found the paintings disappointing, their subversions too obvious. Wilted sunflowers replaced Van Gogh's originals, a shopping trolley and traffic cone were added to the water beneath Monet's footbridge, a Madonna and Child were listening to an ipod, a confrontational skinhead in Union Jack shorts seemed to have thrown a pool chair at the window of Edward Hopper's nighthawk-populated diner. But then I got the feeling that the obviousness was part of the point. Banksy's rat pen wasn't about the 'remixed' paintings as discrete objects littered with icons that have attached themselves to him like trademarks. It was an intentionally fucked-up installation reconstructing a tragicomic apocalypse forged in the brain of an artist desperate to change a situation where nothing is felt to be authentic and everything is experienced as spectacle. Stifle your yawns. The next minute I thought the rat shit summed it up much better.
Banksy is infamous in some quarters for his covert additions to the walls and display-cases of museums and galleries. 'Crude Oils' was hit in a similar way when an anonymous gallery-goer pinned up a Magritte-style bowler-hatted Everyman painted with an egg on his face. It is characteristic of Banksy's slippery manipulation of media expectations that opinion is divided as to whether this was a planned part of the exhibition or not.
'Crude Oils' was a distraction and release from the formulaic art Banksy does best: the satirical graffiti on the Palestinian side of the Israeli security wall that attempted to refocus attention on the brutality and oppression emblematic in the erection of the wall itself, or those stencils that suddenly disrupt the architecture of the urban street and force you to confront your own complacency and complicity in accepting the injustices of what constitutes the everyday. But the exhibition was also a showcase for Banksy's own calculated branding, his so-called existencilism (OK, so Crass used the term before, but until there's a rat spray-painted on the trunk of every tree in Epping Forest they're not fucking bothered, right?). Inevitably, Banksy remains permanently under threat of recuperation into the system he critiques. But, for me, his most powerful work emerges when he plays less directly with that threat.