Imagine you’re walking down a city street and you see a rabbit perching in a shop window filing its nails before a vanity mirror. In an adjacent window a mother surveillance camera lovingly monitors her vigilant offspring. Above the window a sign reads “The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill.” Further inside the shop, breaded fish fingers swim mindlessly in circles around a bowl. This surreal menagerie would certainly make passersby look again – and it does, because this is Banksy’s newest art installation.
The elusive British street artist Banksy has opened up shop in Greenwich Village, revealing his first official exhibition in New York City. He is seen as somewhat of an enigma – his carefully guarded identity has never been revealed. Over the past decade, the self-dubbed “art terrorist” has become famous for provocative, stenciled graffiti on various facades of various cityscapes. He redefined the typical notion of the artist’s canvas by painting on buildings, streets, billboards, vehicles, and even animals. Animals – and their voicelessness – have always been a primary subject in Banksy’s art. His graffiti often features rats, he has painted on an elephant, and animals are again the focus of his current installation.
Banksy’s exhibit is a mock pet supply shop filled with animatronic creatures. The store imitates the atmosphere of a real pet shop with dimmed lighting, eccentric shopkeepers, and the use of bear urine to enhance the natural smell. Outwardly, it is like any other shop in the Village. There is no sign of Banksy – except that nothing is for sale, so nothing is commodified. The viewer simply watches the seemingly alive animals and the processed meat “would-be” creatures that have been mechanically reanimated.
“I wanted to make art that questioned our relationship with animals and the ethics and sustainability of factory farming,” Banksy explained in his artist’s statement. In one case, chicken nuggets eagerly dip their beaks into a paper trough of barbecue sauce as fresh nuggets hatch from a nest of eggs. In another terrarium, a new litter of hot dogs slithers sluggishly from their parent sausages, who in turn drink from a bottle of mustard. In a raised birdcage, a melancholy and balding Tweety bird rocks back and forth on its perch. It has abandoned its favourite refrain of “I tawt I taw a puddy tat” for a more gloomy, disillusioned persona. Each creature has been taken out of its usual context in order to demonstrate the exploitative way humans utilize animals.
Like the majority of Banksy’s art, the exhibit is ominously comical as it combines whimsy with more serious issues. The lifelike “pets” are disturbingly vacant; the rabbit emulates human narcissism and the primate stares numbly at a television screen.
The processed meat, on the other hand, is active and curious. The animatronic meat can be seen as your average Happy Meal with a pulse. Viewers might find this alarming – we expect our fast food to lie acquiescent in its wrapper. Banksy has staged an absolute role reversal between the pet and the meat.
The inspiration for the exhibition came when Banksy saw a Chihuahua wearing a jeweled collar walking past a homeless person. “New Yorkers don’t care about art they care about pets, so I’m exhibiting them instead,” he later explained. These pets are more privileged than many people on the planet, thus the proliferation of the pet service industry; Banksy’s pet shop aims to comment on this injustice.
In Montreal, one pet pampering business is the hip Westmount boutique Bark & Fitz, a franchise in a 21-unit chain. The shop contains a myriad of pet products, a doggie bakery, a grooming salon, and giftware for the accompanying pet owner. Michael Page, the CEO of the company, believes that “business is evolving because customers are looking for a more high-end pet experience.” He then likened his business to other yuppie enterprises when he said “we consider ourselves the Starbucks or Whole Foods of the pet retail business.” In other words, the biscuit has been replaced with the brioche.
Banksy’s creative collision of the pet shop with the supermarket meat aisle is an ingenious representation of human exploitation of animals. Why are some animals cast as companions while others are born for consumption? Love it or hate it, Banksy leaves us with some serious food for thought.
The Village Pet Shop and Charcoal Grill (89 7th Ave S., New York) is open until October 31. Admission is free. Banksy enthusiasts stranded in Montreal can check out thevillagepetstoreandcharcoalgrill.com for videos and more information.