Thoughts & Insights
No Biblical Story
An artist travels to three Ukrainian towns. Inmidst the ruins he wants to leave some paintings at the walls of shelled buildings - anonymously. Photos of these paintings start to go viral the next day. Some wonder who might have done this. But the handwriting is unmisunderstandably clear: This was done by Banksy.
After he admits to the action, the relevant feuilletons report about it, ask about its meaning, and the significance of the image motifs. Some are surprised that he is quite obviously siding with the Ukraine with this action.
I’m surprised that one can be so taken aback about this.
Banksy, as an intelligent spoilsport of the commercial art and culture business, struck me as likeable from the start. And his ability to show up at the right place at the right time with an effective action, and at the same time to deal visually with complex issues and topics in a way that everyone can understand, impresses me time and time again.
Far from the established art scene, he has managed to reach people with his street art right where they live and roam about. The enormous speed with which this street art then spreads virally on social networks shows its tremendous impact, and so my like for him is combined with equally as much respect.
The films and photos of the atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha and Irpin went around the world in April. It is precisely there, in Irpin, and also in the towns of Borodyanka and Horenka, that Banksy has now left his mark on the destroyed walls of a kindergarten and on the walls of bombed-out apartment buildings. Anyone who sees these artistic imprints inevitably also sees the traces of the terrible devastation in these and countless other cities and towns in the Ukraine. Banksy makes war a point of discussion simply by bringing these images to the places where they are inextricably linked to people’s everyday lives, within the footprints of the brutal war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine for nine months now.
I wonder what the people of Irpin, Borodyanka and Horenka have to say about these imprints Banksy has left on the walls of their destroyed houses.
The response to art, an artistic action or even non-artistic action, is at least as interesting as the artwork or action itself, and ultimately what makes it come alive and keeps it alive. I have been following this trail of thought for many years, and this also connects me to Banksy.
The first responses on the internet showed not only Banksy’s pictures, but time and time again people who had themselves photographed in front of the pictures or took selfies. Later, Banksy himself posted a video with footage of his campaign on the web. American and German television reports also featured comments from people on site, some of whom had even traveled from other cities to see the murals with their own eyes. They all speak of appreciation and gratitude that someone like Banksy has the courage to come to them, to the Ukrainian war zone, just to express his solidarity and sympathy. Some express the hope that the campaign will generate a new kind of attention for Ukraine’s existential defense struggle, others are simply amazed by what they see.
The motifs of the murals are as disconcerting as they are touching. The places where they can be found are chosen with care. Some, each in a very unique way, bring the vision of a carefree life to the destroyed environment. Others capture a moment of existential horror in everyday life, and others seem to explicitly want to give hope.
There is a ballerina dancing with ease on pointe, swinging a band of cloth over her head, as if she were on a stage. A woman in a robe with curlers in her hair, a gas mask in front of her face and a fire extinguisher in her hand, standing on a chair left isolated, on the wall of a house. In the remains of a tiled bathroom which turned into an outer wall, a man lies in his bathtub, two children teeter on a tank barrier. An oversized phallus rises from an armored vehicle, on the impact hole of a house an acrobat performs a handstand. On the remains of a wall from a destroyed kindergarten, a small boy in a white combat suit taking down a big, strong man.
Particularly, the image of the little boy taking down a big, strong man is the subject of speculation both on the ground and in the media: The boy could symbolize Ukraine defeating Putin. This is also how a Ukrainian woman sees it in one of the videos. My spontaneous association was very close to this idea; it brought back memories of the story of David’s fight against Goliath.
A biblical story
Who does not know this biblical story from the Old Testament? A shepherd boy named David defeats a giant named Goliath. The Old Testament is full of stories that sound fantastic – from the seven plagues God uses to punish the Egyptians, to the Red Sea miraculously parting for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, in order to bury their persecutors underneath themselves afterwards. But none of these stories struck me as realistic as that of David and Goliath when I first heard them in my childhood.
This was not because of how Samuel explains the victory little David won over the powerful Goliath. He writes that this had to happen because David was chosen by God to become the next king of the Israelites. Through his heroic deed against the enemy Philistine, the word of God came to pass and David became Israel’s legendary King David. One of the most exclusive traditional hotels in Jerusalem still bears his name today.
Why David triumphs
What excited me about this story? It was the idea that David, by his own strength and through great courage, the intelligent use of his abilities and the realization of the greatest weakness of his opponent – who was huge, heavily armored and armed, but thereby also having difficulties moving – managed to defeat this monstrous fighting machine called Goliath.
David, as the youngest son of the family, was at that time tending to his family’s flock, defending it daily against the predatory attacks of wild beasts, which he put to flight or killed by the skillful use of his slingshot.
The stone, which he hurled skillfully and with such great force against the forehead of his seemingly overpowering opponent, hit him so deeply and forcefully that he fell head first and lay unconscious, his colossal body powerless in the sand. The fact that David then also cut off his head and thus dispersing the entire host of Philistines – who had been mocking David until then – confident of victory, was no longer in my memory when I looked at Banksy’s spray-painting. I only found that out when I went a little deeper into this biblical story. The stories of the Old Testament are not only remarkable, but occasionally of blunt cruelty.
Symbol and role model
For thousands of years, the story of David and Goliath has stood as a symbol and example for sheer size not having to be synonymous with invincible strength or power. That a single person – if he does not allow himself to be intimidated by the apparent greatness of the opponent, and instead remembers his own strengths and courageously confronts the superior power – can turn the tide of history. In this respect, it is more than a story about a divinely chosen one. It is a story of encouragement that has lost none of its exemplary power, even well into the 21st century.
The comparison to the courageous defensive struggle of the Ukraine against the seemingly invincible superiority of the Russian army is obvious, and it is also strongly suggested by Banksy through the context in which he places the image.
No biblical story
But this is not a biblical story. The Ukraine is not a single person, but a country, a nation. It may be small compared to vast Russia – that is attacking it with the sole aim of wiping out its existence – but the Ukraine is not fighting alone, it has strong partners by its side who support the country in many ways. Nevertheless this fight is strenuous; it will take a long time and will claim many victims.
For me, however, the Ukraine has one thing in common with little David from the Old Testament: As a community, it has the courage and the valiant determination to defend its country, its freedom, and to win this battle. It will not be intimidated and it will not give up.
Banksy’s images do nothing to change the existential threat in which the people of these cities he visited, and of Ukraine as a whole, have been living in for nine months now – and against which they have defended themselves with great courage, equally great humanity and admirable indomitability.
But now they are here, these pictures. They have appeared unexpectedly, as if out of nowhere, and, for a few days at least, they have once again drawn the attention of the world to what the people in Ukraine experience and suffer through day after day – to the extent of the world already having become accustomed to this struggle.
For the people of Ukraine, especially in Irpin, Borodyanka and Horenka, these images will probably remain a lasting reminder, even after the war, that someone like Banksy was once among those who stood by their side – standing with the Ukraine.