Unauthorized Banksyland exhibit opens in Houston

“Banksyland,” the unauthorized yet much-anticipated traveling exhibition, was still under construction Friday morning in its new Houston home: The Space HTX, next to Tout Suite cafe in EaDo. The exhibit, which opened at noon Friday, continues until Aug. 20.

Tickets to the art experience sold like hot cakes, despite “Banksyland’s” then-undisclosed location.

“This space was referred to us from someone who saw the show in Austin,” says general manager Britt Reyes. Other venues she considered fell through. “One place wanted $15,000 for air conditioning. We also needed a loading dock and parking,” she said.

But The Space HTX ticked all the right boxes.

The building’s exterior and interior have an industrial vibe. Exposed brick and wiring mix with crystal chandeliers. With only 5,000 square feet to work with, “Banksyland” Houston is the smallest pop-up on the 22-city tour, but the flow feels right. Black pipe-and-drape curtains partially disguise the U-shaped tour through authenticated works and replica installations. From the outside looking in, the studio-style venue is kind of a fish bowl, Reyes said. They will cover the windows to protect some of the show’s mystery.

“Banksyland” is a self-aware operation. While much ado has been made over its unauthorized nature, Reyes and her team don’t pay much attention to the controversy.

‘Banksyland’

When: through Aug. 20

Where: The Space HTX, 2005 Commerce

Details: $22 and up; banksyland.com. The show is sold out.


Banksy, the English street artist and political activist, is nothing if not controversial. His identity and real name remain unknown.

A wall of Banksy quotes spray-painted on black canvases line a wall at “Banksyland’s” entrance. One reads: “Nobody ever listened to me until they didn’t know who I was.”

“There’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place,” is written on another.

“This is where people start tearing up,” Reyes said, gesturing to the far right corner. “‘If you get tired learn to rest not to quit’ is especially poignant after the past few years.”

In Austin, she guided visitors through more than 80 private tours. At least four were curated for sight-impaired ticket holders. But Houston VIPs will have to make do with pre-recorded audio.

“Banksyland” showcases a mix of authenticated works on loan from private collectors and replica installations. There’s one gallery wall covered with authentic Banksy pieces. Other vignettes — including a quartet of sketches made into 3D sculptures via a collaboration between Banksy and Brandalism by Dope Gallery in Hong Kong — are more of a gray area.

“Those have more of a blessing from Banksy’s press control,” Reyes said.

She’s referring to a third-party trifecta of public relations, marketing and legal associates set up by the artist to vet requests and protect Banksy’s identity.

Through those channels, “Banksyland” was able to obtain and reprint works such as “Devolved Parliament” (2009) to scale. The massive oil-on-canvas painting of chimpanzees debating in the House of Commons shares what Reyes calls the “British corner” with a punk rock re-imagination of Winston Churchill in “Turf War” (2003) and “Slave Labour” (2012 ), depicting a young boy sewing a Union Jack textile.

Nearby is “Di-Faced Tenners” (2004), a metal briefcase filled with a £10 note, featuring Princess Diana’s likeness on one side of the bill and Charles Darwin on the other.

“The most powerful and strongest in our society often take out our weakest,” Reyes said. “Banksy’s idea was to discreetly distribute 1 million pounds to call out the British obsession with the royal family. Unfortunately, the government saw this plan as counterfeiting, not art.”

The artist’s original project was cut short. Ultimately, he may have had the last laugh when the British Museum acquired some of the faux currency in 2019.

“He’s calling out government and individuals, and yet we’re craving more,” Reyes said.

Uniting two of the main galleries is a commentary on “Barely Legal” (2006). For his inaugural US exhibition, Banksy painted a 38-year-old elephant named Tai to match a pink and gold wallpaper backdrop. The Los Angeles reception drew celebrities — including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — into a living room with Tai (aka the elephant in the room), representing world poverty. Criticism from animal activists drew further attention to Banksy’s suggestion that collective wealth from the event’s attendees alone could solve Earth’s clean water crisis.

Tai isn’t exactly to scale here, although she is a key social media moment. Reyes directed team members to get the structure’s angles just right ahead of the Friday opening. “Banksyland’s” is sold-out, even though the experience’s Houston run has been extended due to demand.

“Banksyland” is nothing like a museum show. House music pulsates at a low level during business hours. And the only light inside The Space HTX is the glow from the chandeliers overhead.

However, the rebellious spirit of Banksy can be felt throughout. A photograph of MV Louis Michel, the former French navy boat purchased and customized by proceeds from the artist to perform search and rescue, fills an unassuming corner. Banksy reportedly used money generated from the sales of his work on the migrant crisis to restore and rename the vessel. Its namesake is a woman who provided safe passage to refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

A welcome mat under the boat’s framed photo is made from orange life vests pulled from the water. Look closely at the picture to spot an out-of-place wooden plank — under it is a “Girl with a Pink Balloon.” The miniscule riff on Banksy’s most recognizable stencil, “Girl with Balloon” (2002), is directly across the gallery hall. The latter is one of Banksyland’s smallest works and has been authenticated by a private collector, Reyes said.

If you have tickets, don’t forget to look up — there’s an Easter egg hiding in the ceiling’s left corner. And follow the red wire for an unauthorized surprise that would likely earn Banksy’s stamp of approval.

amber.elliott@chron.com

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