Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Mr Brainwash

The Old Sorting Office on New Oxford Street (just along the road from the British Museum) is currently hosting the second London exhibition by film-maker turned street artist Mr Brainwash. You can't miss it; the outside of the building features giant images of the Beatles in bandanas, Kate Moss, and the Queen next to the graffitied slogan "God save the People', pink paintbrush in hand.

Mr Brainwash, aka MBW, aka Thierry Guetta first came to the notice of the general public in Banksy's Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary (mockumentary?) Exit Through the Gift Shop, where he is encouraged by Banksy and Shepard Fairey (of Obama Hope fame) to swap film-making for art.
Opinion has been divided since then as to whether MBW is a Banksy hoax, a late developer or an indictment of hype and gullibility in the art world. Either way, Mr Brainwash has since designed an album cover for Madonna, sold over a million dollars' worth of work in his debut exhibition and had work auctioned at Sotheby's alongside that of Andy Warhol.

So is Mr Brainwash nothing but a huge practical joke, a flipped finger to the world of art? You can get quite Dan Brown about the possible clues if you look for them. The name Brainwash itself . . . labels on the giant paint cans in the exhibition boast 'Improved hiding for better coverage' . . . Banksy's iconic rioter is pictured throwing not flowers but a copy of 'Street Art for Dummies' . . .

The portrait of a brooding Banksy (don't get excited, his face is hidden by a hood) in a Van Gogh-inspired room, ironically an artist whose talent is without question but who sold only one painting during his lifetime . . . hmmm. Also when you leave the exhibition you have to walk either to the left or right side of a rope, one marked 'Exit' and one marked 'Free gift'. Those who wandered down the exit only side and then asked for a free poster were told to go back and walk on the correct side of the rope . . . i.e. to Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Or perhaps Mr Brainwash just is who he is and what may have started as a prank has snowballed itself into reality. Interviewers have commented on how genuine he seems, how the exuberance and optimism of his work appear to be an outpouring of his own irrepressible personality. He describes himself as Banksy's 'biggest work of art' and in an interview published in the Evening Standard said 'Banksy pushed me to what I am today . . . but he didn't know that I was going to run and run!'

So if he is a Banksy creation - intentionally or otherwise - in going to see a Mr Brainwash exhibition, are you actually going to see Banksy? For his part, Banksy has made him a coat which reads 'Mr Brainwash is a phenomenon. I don't say that in a good way.' and Shepard Fairey has said, 'It was fascinating to observe a lot of suckers buying in to his show'. Confused? I think I need a lie down and a large gin and tonic (not necessarily in that order).

Anyway, back to the exhibition. Mr Brainwash's work has been described as 'happy art' and it is certainly that. Whilst it lacks the scathing social comment that makes much of Banksy's work so compelling, it is undeniably enjoyable; the serious, sober-suited security guard said that the exhibition had had over 2,000 visitors per day and certainly everyone there on my visit was having fun. The atmosphere was very relaxed; once past a cursory bag check (I was allowed to keep my bottle of water, they were more worried about pens, paint or crayons) you just wander around the exhibits, taking photos on your phone, chatting and pointing out new finds.

Pose next to a life-sized London black cab in a giant souvenir toy box, Mickey Mouse fashioned out of antique Coke signs or a 20ft gorilla made of rubber tyres, wielding the ubiquitous pink paintbrush. There are pop icons aplenty from Elvis to Elton; I particularly liked the series of music icons incorporating broken vinyl records (although some photographers of the original images are suing).

Th exhibition is free, runs from 1pm (not 11am as mentioned in Time Out) and has been extended until 7th September.
Is it entertaining? Absolutely. Is it art? I have no idea - ask Banksy.

Girl About Town xx

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