Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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Artist Banksy addresses climate change in ‘hijacked’ painting

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As the Puget Sound region coped this week with extreme heat caused by climate change, one of the art world’s most audacious commentaries on the issue reemerged across the Atlantic.

A 2009 work of creative vandalism from British artist and agitator Banksy, “Subject to Availability,” was scheduled to go up for sale at Christie’s King Street in London Wednesday. The painting’s subject is a beloved feature of the Northwest: Mount Rainier.

A prolific street artist, Banksy has long maintained his anonymity despite rising fame and multimillion-dollar private sales. Christie’s estimates the value of “Subject to Availability” between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000 British pounds, or about $4,152,900 and $6,921,500 in U.S. dollars.

To create “Subject to Availability,” Banksy “hijacked” an 1890 painting by artist Albert Bierstadt, said Christie’s spokesperson Sara Macdonald. Though Bierstadt, a German American painter, lived in New York, he frequently visited — and painted — the American West during his lifetime.

Bierstadt was a fitting conceptual reference for Banksy’s reckoning with climate change. As Macdonald explained, he was a member of the Hudson River School, a group of painters who “railed against the industrial revolution’s destruction of nature.”

Banksy built upon that commentary by adding an asterisk and a tiny bit of corporate-speak to the painting’s bottom right-hand corner: “*Subject to availability for a limited period only.”

If that phrase feels newly resonant now that many are grappling with the impact of climate change on the West, that’s exactly the intended takeaway.

By design, Banksy created “Subject to Availability” in the year of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. He has often examined the fate of the environment through an activist lens — unsurprising for an artist whose work has covered all manner of social issues.

The Christie’s catalog text lists just a few: “police brutality, knife crime, poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brexit, migration and—most recently—the COVID-19 pandemic.”

After the 2009 Copenhagen conference ended without a legally binding treaty to mitigate climate change, Banksy painted the phrase “I DON’T BELIEVE IN GLOBAL WARMING” on a wall adjacent to Regent’s Canal in London, the letters appearing to sink into the water like so much coastline.

In 2018, the artist created a mural of a boy inhaling ash in Port Talbot, the Welsh town where one of the biggest European steelwork plants can be found.

What differentiates a piece like “Subject to Availability” from these works of street art is its reference to past artistic traditions that — contrary to the forces driving climate change — revered nature.

“In the present work, Banksy’s deliberate nod to the Romantic era — a period that glorified the sublime majesty of nature — serves to underscore the tragic reality latent in his asterisked quip,” reads the catalog text. The grand original image, “suffused with Romantic heroism and grandeur, is reduced to a fleeting commodity.”

Defacing other artists’ work — or at least reimagining them — is a common approach for Banksy.

“Subject to Availability” “belongs to Banksy’s celebrated series of vandalised [oil paintings] and was originally included in Banksy’s seminal exhibition in Bristol — a guerrilla stunt on his home turf,” said Macdonald of Christie’s.

For that show, “Banksy versus Bristol Museum,” the artist added over 100 of his works to the museum’s permanent collection overnight.

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