Turf War, London, July 2003
While clearly referencing Yousuf Karsh’s instantly recognizable portrait of Churchill that once became emblematic of British defiance against fascism, Turf War – executed on canvas in Banksy’s signature stenciled style – subverts the pathos of the original image by portraying the British political icon with a green mohican made from turfed grass. Born out of Banksy’s rebellious visual language, this irreverent depiction continues to hijack the physical and conceptual spaces that, in Banksy’s own words, do not belong to him, unsettling the social order upheld by an elite class. Once displayed in a former East London warehouse alongside strikingly controversial exhibits, such as live animals painted as police and concentration camp inmates, Turf War was at the heart of an ephemeral, surrealist three-day happening that, much like Banksy’s famous self-shredding work, became a cultural phenomenon. The show’s legendarily bold absurdism, brazen humor and mischief are perfectly encapsulated in this work, cementing Banksy, as far as the elusiveness of his persona allows, as an undaunted social commentator and one of the most significant artists of our time.
Image: © John Stillwell / Alamy Stock Photo (via Sotheby’s)
The punk-style mohican added to the iconic portrait achieves more than a straight-from-the-shoulder mockery of the British political icon through the aesthetic of the subcultures that historically challenged the establishment ideals. As evidenced in a 2009 work IKEA Punk, Banksy draws on this trope to explore the commercialization and paradoxical homogenization of subculture aesthetics. The rebellion of Turf War does not, therefore, subscribe to an existing rebellion, but rather invokes paradox, disjunction and negation, to highlight ephemeral modern culture’s failure to transcend destruction and injustice. As Will Gompertz remarks, “Banksy makes art that, as Hamlet said, holds ‘…the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’”
Sir Winston Churchill, making a speech on his 80th Birthday at Westminster Hall, London
Image: © Popperfoto via Getty Images, Via Sotheby’s
A compelling, nonconformist voice in contemporary British art and one of the great social commentators of our time, Banksy subverts the language of art history by breaking down the boundaries between graphic and fine art, the street and the gallery, the whimsical and the controlled, the humorous and the earnest. Channeling a powerful current of rebel activity in the art world since the turn of the millennium, when political agitation was viewed by the artist as hopelessly naive, Banksy’s incessant creative remixing of symbols and illumination of paradox have critiqued institutional order brilliantly and with fresh force. As deployed tremendously in Turf War, Banksy is a master of conjuring ambiguity and bemusement as the ultimate tactic for challenging the power structures of contemporary life in the art world and beyond.