SWAT Van by Banksy
SWAT Van is one of the most ambitious and important works by Banksy to appear on the open market; nowhere else have his greatest strengths been combined to such success as in the present work. Banksy's classic response to fear and tyranny is laughter and in the case of the present work the artist toys with his anti-establishment persona, ridiculing the police not just by depicting a scene in which heavily armed, faceless Special Forces agents are hoodwinked by a small boy but by doing so on the very apparatus of their strength. Banksy's best works combine vicious black humour with a clarity of message that many of the best advertisers would kill for and a rage that simply will not be ignored. His playfulness is the velvet glove that hides the iron fist of a social conscience honed on the streets of Bristol and which found its apotheosis in his breakout show Barely Legal in Los Angeles in 2006.
This exhibition was the artist's first ever show across the Atlantic, with little fanfare and profile. It was staged just off Skid Row in an unloved part of Downtown and yet for its three day run the queues were a mile long and the guest list on the opening night included the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz and Dennis Hopper amongst others. The interior of the warehouse had been painted with a red and gold flock wallpaper effect and a monstrous thirty-seven year old Indian elephant named Kai painted in the same way so as to blend in. The installation was called The Elephant in the Room and was a high concept and yet subtle reference to his outrage at the manner in which the disadvantaged are routinely ignored in society. As a companion piece to SWAT Van it dominated this his most important exhibition.
The present work was acquired directly from this exhibition and has remained in the same magnificent collection ever since, coming to the open market now for the first time. Despite the nature of the sculpture the condition is excellent and testament to the care with which the artist approaches even his most challenging works. This is a work that by the artist's own admission was first shown in a 'vandalised warehouse extravaganza' and yet it is worthy of any museum collection in the world.
SWAT Van is an imposing object, its menace is palpable. The art historical trope of the readymade has never been so loaded as with the present work and yet this piece shares more DNA with Duchamp's Fountain than many of the works of his numberless imitators. For any decontexualisation to have an impact it must subvert the original function of the object; if a urinal can become a fountain then an armoured vehicle can become both a playground and a counter-cultural canvas.
The secret of Banksy's success is built on the foundations of his relationship with the police of his native Avon and Somerset. Worried that painting freehand would take too long and risk leaving him caught in the act, Banksy borrowed a technique from the French artist Blek le Rat of using a pre-fabricated stencil that could be fixed to the wall and overpainted in seconds. The benefit was not simply that he was suddenly able to leave his mark and melt into the shadows in an instant but that the image left behind was by its very nature graphic and legible. This all feeds into the Robin Hood mythology of a hero who emerges in the night, speaking up for the voiceless and yet the artist proudly thinks of himself far more in terms of vermin: "[Rats] exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees. If you are dirty, insignificant, and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model." (the artist in: Banksy, Wall and Piece, London 2005, p. 12) This game of cat and rat with the authorities has been referenced repeatedly in his work but never to such visceral effect as with the present work.
It is no accident that an artist like Banksy has been able to become world renowned during a period in which the intent has become an essential part of everyday life. Graffiti artists lived in the understanding that their work was ephemeral, that it was likely to be buffed in a matter of days if not hours. With the internet however these images can live forever and be disseminated around the world instantly adding genuine influence to a once marginal and underground movement. It is no surprise therefore that by 2010 Time Magazine had listed Banksy as number 56 in their '100 Most Influential People in the World'.
SWAT Van itself is an elegant evocation of all the contradictions of the artist's career and specifically his artistic output. On the one side of the van the taut, technical composition of a fiendishly complex stencil catches the breathless moment before the boy's prank takes place. The other side both physically and figuratively shows the raw aggression and vandalism of the overlapping, freehand tags. All of Banksy is on show here, his bravado, his imagination, his technical prowess, his confidence and his willingness to put his head above the parapet and speak truth to power.