Johny ML, Independent Art Critic and Curator
Mr.Bean sitting pretty on an easy chair like a Karanavar (Grand Uncle in a Patriarchal society in Kerala), a Bharatanaytam dancer doing a ‘moon walk’ in MJ’s attire, legendary Malayalam film actor Late Prem Nazir posing like James Bond, the great gurus of Marxism, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels clad in the attire of two Sadhus (mendicants) and many more images like that, seen on the inconspicuous walls in India’s Biennale city, Kochi, have caught the attention of the international press. Signed by ‘Guess Who’ these stencilled graffiti works are done with a conscious blending of the regional and the global images and in an unmistakable ‘Banksy style’, which has been made international by the deliberate efforts of American Museums. The attention that the international and national press shower on these stencilled images especially came visible during a focused context of Kochi Muziris Biennale that celebrates local and global art is obviously because of the ‘glocal’ nature of these graffiti works. Had the same themes been done in another style, say for example in traditional Kerala Mural art style, it would not have generated such an enthusiasm around these works. Being global and local at the same time has done its bit for getting enough attention for these works. But a question that lingers the viewers’ mind is this: Why this artist or a group of artist leave their identity for guessing?
A BBC interview with the Guess Who artist which is currently available in the net suggests that the ‘authorship’ of these works has been owned up by ‘someone’. He/she speaks in first person singular and justifies his decision to be anonymous. Also he sermonizes why public spaces have to be aesthetically altered through adequate interventions. Besides, at the outset itself he clarifies that art cannot give so much of social messages. Hence, his act remains to be an aesthetical intervention that sets people think in a different direction. To put in other words, these are ‘image poking’. This was what exactly Banksy and so many of his tribe have been doing all over the world for the last few decades, until they get absorbed in the mainstream art market business and strategic systems. I have been using a male pronoun in order to qualify the name of the artist behind Guess Who to continue my writing though I have used a politically correct he/she in the beginning. Even if it may sound prejudiced, I would say, it is done by a He because the anonymity maintained by the artist so far cannot be possible if it was a woman artist. First of all, in the given social context of Kerala today where moral policing is rampant and holding hands or public kissing is abhorred like plague and those who do it are hunted down and are given rough treatment by both the right wing activists and the state Police, a woman artist cannot come out alone in the desolated streets in Kochi and do these elaborate graffiti works all by herself.
Now, let’s discuss the idea behind Guess Who. In fact, it is very easy to guess. In my observation, there is an advertising agency behind it. Though I have very solid inkling towards this agency, it would legally threaten my social position, if my guess work goes wrong. However, I insist that the Guess Who graffiti, which I would like to say, a copy of Banksy’s aesthetics with nothing new than punning the images and creating over visual overstatements and understatements that come quite naturally to a Malayali creative mind as it is the land that has produced the best of humour writers and cartoonists in India. From Chakyar Koothu to mimicry, from comic films to innumerable comedy programs in uncountable Malayalam television channels, from Bobanum Moliyum (Boban and Moly) to Tintu Mon comics, from youtube links to comedy apps, Kerala is always high on comic inventions and interventions. It could be a genetic modification of the Malayalis to transcend the tragedies of socio-political degeneration and to survive healthily in the given situations. Hence, these graffiti works of Guess Who cannot be discussed for its artistic merit nor can it be included as a part of a great art movement that is about to happen in Kerala. Why, because it is done by a male artist with a team of advertising professionals to back him up not only with ideas but also with sufficient machinery to produce elaborate stencils.
Guess Who is done by an advertising agency, I repeat. And it thrives on improvisational aesthetics rather than innovative aesthetics. Advertising agencies, generally speaking, work on desire and familiarity in order to communicate an idea and sell a product. The desire quotient of a human being depends on his or her ideas on good, healthy and comfortable living. He needs familiar images in order to believe in what he buys to enhance his life style or living standard. When an advertisement tells you that you are not fair enough, it plays upon a familiar fairness, which could be the complexion of a famous actress who you are familiar with through films and photographs. So you have something familiar to identify with and the advertisement tells you that it is possible to gain that complexion if you really strive for it. And the product is a way to achieve that goal. That is the simple reason why an insurance company or a bank that offers loan uses ‘unidentified models’ to act out a character. The model makes you believe that you too are mortal like him and you too want a home like him, a moderate one. A film star like Shah Rukh Khan or Mohan Lal cannot sell an insurance policy to you because they look too immortal to be dying in an accident or illness. Again, most of the products that enhance your life as a human being in daily situation, are sold through advertisements that play up familial situations like family, office, hospital, street, restaurant etc. Guess Who works on everything familiar and in discourse; hence, I believe, these works are cleverly created by an advertising agency or a persona with an advertisement background.
Secondly, these stencils that are used to create the images that are hailed all over the world as the works of Guess Who, cannot be done without having a good team of professionals and equipments behind it. Too much precise and flawless like Banksy’s works, these graffiti works of Guess Who too betray the fact that they are done in a good studio with high quality equipments. A few graphic artists working for a few weeks or months have meticulously worked out on stencils under the strict directions of some advertising professional/professionals. Then a team goes out with them, equipped with spray cans or other painting materials, in vehicles, at least temporarily customized for this purpose, and done precisely during night hours not to keep anonymity of the artist but to have conducive working atmosphere. After execution, right before the beginning of Biennale, the team behind it has done secretly reaching out to the press or even open reaching out to the press saying that they have just found out a series of graffiti in Kochi. Then it spreads like wild fire. Now, those who question me on this should see ‘Exit through a Gift Shop’, a documentary directed by none other than Banksy himself.
Finished in 2010, this Banksy film features the life and ‘art’ of Thierry Guetta, a French migrant living in the US. Guetta has this habit of video shooting anything and everything around him. He happens to see his cousin, a graffiti artist in Paris who goes under the name, ‘Space Invader’. Guetta goes around with him, documents the nocturnal activities of the underground and graffiti artists and in due course of time Guetta is introduced to Banksy. Surprised by the enthusiasm of this man, Banksy slowly becomes a friend of Guetta and they become thick friends during a US sojourn of Bansky for his first show titled ‘Barely Legal’. Soon Banksy finds Guetta going haywire so he advices Guetta to start his own graffiti works. Guetta takes it seriously and mortgages his business to start an elaborate studio and establishes himself as ‘Mr.Brainwash’, the graffiti artist. Today, he is one of the globetrotting graffiti artists who sell the works for millions of dollars. I wrote this gist for one particular visual/textual evidence available within the film. In this film, both Banksy and Guetta are seen working in their respective studios. They are plush studios with several assistants working on stencils and final prints. Also I have seen several graffiti artists’ documentaries where they are seen working with assistants. Those underground graffiti artists, who in fact now despise Banksy for compromising with the market, do not have such elaborate arrangements to produce their works and most of them remain obscure or known only amongst the peer group networks. When that is the case, it is very difficult to believe that one underground artist in Kerala decides to become another Banksy and comes with a thud during the Kochi Biennale.
Coming to the issue of anonymity of the artists like Banksy or Guess Who, I would say, it is one of the most interesting make believe thing or illusion that the twenty first century art lovers or art community have decided to willingly stomach without raising a finger. Every year without fail spoof news reports on the arrest of Banksy do the rounds all over the world through viral transmission over internet. On the next day the Metropolitan Police send a disclaimer saying that they are still on the hunt and they are not yet successful. Here we are dealing with a man who has made the world to look at his graffiti, then had a solo show in New York, has a studio in London and perhaps travels all over the world with a passport. He is even seen documented in his studio with his face and voice deliberately blurred. Isn’t it a bit surreal and comic that the British Police of Interpol fail to catch such a con artist? We went into Abottabad to finish Bin Laden, we went into the bunkers of Iraq to catch Saddam Hussein. We know how to hunt down every rebel in the world. But our Police fail to catch one little artist called Banksy. Are you saying something seriously to me? The fact is that Banksy is an integral part of the art industry and keeping his anonymity intact is what makes his art and business successful. The state, its punitive and legal institutions, financial interests, world cultural leaders, museum directors and many others are in this chain of deception. They all work together to keep Banksy under cover. The day Banksy’s identity is revealed, the Banksy myth is lost and the Banksy industry is collapsed. It is just like a game that we used to play in childhood. We decide to pretend that one of our friends does not exist and he is invisible. Now, we make a network amongst our friends and all of them would react to him in the same way. He gets confused. But in the game the boy gets confused and in this Banksy game, he is just a willing participant.
Guess Who works on the same game. If we come to know who is Guess Who, the mystery is lost and we will call him a copy cat of Banksy’s aesthetics. The assumed anonymity gives these works and to the artist some kind of dignity and press space. Our spaces are under surveillance. Kochi is not different. Why do our CCTV cameras fail when our home grown Banksy goes out to do his graffiti? Is Kerala Police so stupid that they cannot catch this ‘artist’ who wants to be really anonymous? Now, graffiti according to universal definition of the word is an act of vandalism done on the public property using images or letters, which are objectionable to the dignity of a large public. Banksy’s graffiti started off as intervention which was later dubbed as vandalism by the conservatives. Once it became a part of the art market, graffiti art in general got an elevated status in the public eye. It became a part of the heritage of the city! Guess Who operates on this renewed idea of graffiti. His works in fact enhance the ‘beauty’ of the city and adds to the heritage of the Biennale city, Kochi. Hence it is not an act of vandalism. Since the first edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012, graffiti art has been treated as a part of the government policy. First of all Kochi Muziris Biennale is supported by the Government of Kerala therefore anything that is sanctioned by the Biennale should also be sanctioned by the state government. Secondly, the state government recently has taken a decision to fund a group of artists in Trivandrum to do ‘graffiti’ art on the major public walls in Trivandrum. In that case, Guess Who’s works are no longer interventionist art. They are works strategically created visual images placed in the public domain in order to grab attention towards the Biennale. That, in fact, is not a bad thing to do. But the hype and hoopla around it….looks a bit contrived.
[This piece was originally published under the name ‘Clues to Find out the Artist/s behind Guess Who in Kochi’ in By All Means Necessary, a blog run by Johny ML, on the 15th of December, 2014.]