Until very recently, Banksy’s Mediterranean sea view 2017 was installed in the lobby of the artist’s ‘Walled Off Hotel’ in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Touted by the artist as having ‘the worst view in the world’, the hotel overlooks the highly controversial Israeli West Bank barrier which separates Israel from the Palestinian territories and carves Bethlehem into a double U-shape. The wall’s towering concrete slabs – which stand only 5 metres from the hotel’s entrance – have played host to many works by the artist who has visited with frequency since the mid-2000s. The hotel, which opened in 2017 as Bethlehem’s own answer to the ‘Waldorf’, offers guests a range of rooms from utilitarian bunk-bed dormitories to presidential suites, in which every space, corner and crevice is crammed with the sardonic word-play and dark visual gags of Banksy’s artwork. The present work was created for display over the rubble-filled fireplace in the colonial-styled hotel lobby. Adorning the walls amongst button-back armchairs, velvet curtains and dark-wood panelling, this work reads as the perfect adornment for a nineteenth-century bourgeois interior; yet, like the hotel itself, all is not what it seems: close inspection reveals a number of politically barbed and disturbing aberrations.
Comprising three ‘found’ oil paintings, each traditionally framed and depicting tumultuous seascapes reminiscent of Romantic era paintings and present-day imitations – the likes of which can be found on the railings opposite Green Park station in Mayfair – this work juxtaposes an historic fine art genre with grim contemporaneity. Banksy reworked the original compositions by adding a slew of hand-painted life jackets and buoys; a visual amendment that evokes mass death at sea. Indeed, as inferred by the work’s title, Mediterranean Sea view 2017 alludes to the lives lost at sea during the European migrant ‘crisis’ of the 2010s. Seeking international protection from countries riven by armed-conflict or social unrest, many of the refugees who arrived in Italy and Greece crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat; a risky and dangerous crossing that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands during this period.
The crisis was officially declared over in March 2019; however, the high death toll and the media’s simultaneous fear-mongering over migration and frank coverage of shipwrecked crossings, is indelibly etched upon our collective consciousness. Of the latter, most powerful perhaps are the sobering images of hundreds of abandoned life jackets left piled-up on the beaches of Greece and Italy. Though posing as eighteenth or nineteenth-century paintings of the ‘Natural Sublime’, the present work undermines and subverts the viewer’s expectations to broach a difficult contemporary issue,
Since his emergence as a street artist in the early 2000s, Banksy has consistently stuck a middle finger up to the system, taking issue and drawing attention to the great socio-political wrongs of our time. Over the years, the tongue-in-cheek punk attitude of his spray-painted stencilled works has taken on an increasingly acerbic and politically charged tone. As epitomised by the numerous murals plastered on the West Bank wall, ‘Banksys’ frequently appear in the most contentious of spaces across the globe, speaking for the victims of war-torn countries and those at the fringes of society adversely affected by conflict and government machinations. As vociferously redolent in the present work, Banksy has been particularly outspoken about the global refugee crisis.
In 2015 at Dismaland, Banksy’s temporary ‘bemusement’ park in Weston-Super-Mare, one of the attractions invited visitors to pilot remote controlled coastguard boats to ram overcrowded migrant vessels; a dark parody of the EU’s disastrous reaction to increased migratory pressure. That same year Banksy planted a number of murals around the Calais ‘jungle’: the refugee and migrant encampment built on an old rubbish tip on the outskirts of Calais that existed between January 2015 and October 2016. Here he spray-painted a portrait of the late Steve Jobs holding an original Apple computer in one hand and a black bin-liner thrown across his shoulder in the other - about which Banksy made a rare statement: “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources, but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion USD a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs” (Banksy quoted in: Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Banksy uses Steve Jobs artwork to highlight refugee crisis’, The Guardian, 11 December 2015, online). More recently still, the migrant issue was brought to the fore when, in 2019, a mural of a lone migrant child wearing a life jacket and holding a pink flare aloft, appeared on a crumbling wall just above the waterline of one of Venice’s canals.
Without a doubt, Banksy is the preeminent social commenter of our time. As demonstrated by the Jacques Louis David-like ambition of Devolved Parliament and the recent Brexiteer-banner turned protest-placard Vote to Love, ballsy satire is Banksy’s metier. Within the very same breath, however, his work forms a rallying call for change and positive action. Indeed, from the recent lock-down painted and NHS-donated artwork depicting a child holding a superhero nurse, to the donation of dismantled Dismaland materials to build emergency shelters in the Calais jungle, through to the sale of the present work to help fund the purchase of medical equipment for a children’s hospital and stroke unit in Bethlehem, Banksy’s practice is fuelled by a striking humanitarianism.