In his award-winning book Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage PETER FORBES tells the unique and fascinating story of mimicry and camouflage in science, art, warfare and the natural world. The author, who received the prestigious Warwick Prize for Writing this week, discusses mimicry in the context of Bansky’s recent controversial (and playful) exhibition in Bristol.
Article by Peter Forbes
Banksy’s installations, exhibited in Bristol in 2009, might seem a far cry from the science of mimicry in the natural world but seeing them just before my book Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, was published I felt very at home. The show painted Banksy in a new light: the heir to a line that includes Picasso, Sir Ernst Gombrich and those natural mimics.
How so? One room in the show contained pieces that Banksy could never have mounted on the street: animatronic creatures in caged installations. These included a rabbit surrounded by make up gear admiring herself in front of a mirror and a chimpanzee artist rocking his head, closing one eye after the other as he sized up the conventional landscape he was painting. These installations made telling points about human vanity and they also showed how easily an impression of life can be created by a few simple movements: if it twitches it must be alive.
Then there was the animated processed food: chicken nuggets hatched from eggs are feeding; a salami squirms as if to escape its plastic casing; a mustard-coated sausage in a hot dog sips water. But the most amazing of these living processed food sculptures was the salami in which the thread that tied it to a hanging string is draped to look like whiskers. The cartoon minimalism of this creature is stunning: a craning salami head and a wispy string and, hey presto, it is a walrus. But – the other stroke of genius – the tail of this writhing walrus/salami has already been diced and sliced several times.
It is impossible to look at Banksy’s salami without thinking of the assemblages Picasso created around 1948-51. Foraging for suggestive junk around rubbish tips in Vallauris, he created a series of sculptures, including a Little Owl who struts on rusty screws for feet, a bull’s horns made from a bike handlebar, and a baboon’s head from two toy cars, placed wheel to wheel.
Whether Banksy was thinking of Picasso’s assemblages when he created these living-food pieces I don’t know but he was certainly thinking of Picasso when he mounted the show. On a plaque inscription he quotes Picasso as saying that “The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal”, scratches out the attribution to Picasso, and substitutes his own name (below). There is no evidence Picasso ever said this, although one feels he ought to have. The authentic quote is from T. S. Eliot (“immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”) but in essence I’m sure that Eliot, Picasso and Banksy are at one on this.
In one piece Banksy surpasses Picasso by using equipment unknown in the 1950s. The contemporary hi-tech equivalent of Picasso’s Little Owl is Banksy’s CCTV family of a mother and two chicks. Perched on their poles over the motorways, CCTV cameras already look like storks; in the Banksy, a mother CCTV gazes down solicitously on her two tiny offspring. Her head roves back and forth over them; the agitated babies crane up to her, jiggling their beaks for food, as fledglings do. The wit and resonance of this piece – its punning on ideas of surveillance, protection, and maternal care v. Big Brother intrusion – is a triumph.
Such punning visual suggestions were of deep interest to the art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich, who showed how a thread of visual punning ran through cartooning (Banksy is, much of the time, a cartoonist), and advertising, as well as fine art. He highlighted the punning of natural forms and human gestures, as in an 18th century French cartoon which saw the character of Louis Philippe’s face in a pear (a secondary meaning of “poire” in French is fathead, so the cartoon is both visually insulting, in emphasizing the flabby jowly features of the King and a verbal insult). Gombrich commented: “Thus a play on words and a visual joke were happily combined”. Gombrich also noted that nature has equivalents for artistic styles; leaf mimicry is naturalistic but a butterfly’s eyespots “represent, if you like, the Expressionist style of nature”, meaning that the eyespot is a symbolic warning gesture that doesn’t copy anything.
For millions of years before Picasso and Banksy appeared on the scene, creatures have been masquerading as a different kind of thing entirely, either camouflaging themselves against the background like the peppered moth (pale and peppered against lichen in the country; black against soot in the city), or mimicking the form of a stone, a leaf or another creature, as the harmless kingsnakes do, donning the red, yellow and black banding of the toxic coral snakes.
In his two-dimensional work Banksy is expert at pointing up the sad contradictions of human existence: the gross Western tourist couple, grinning inanely and self-admiringly into their camera phones as they are pulled in a rickshaw by a waif of an Asian boy; another waif, lost in a blasted wilderness, sporting an “I Hate Mondays” T shirt. In Banksy’s “menagerie room” at Bristol, in three dimensions, he ranges across the world of animals/food and machines to show that our vaunted gestures are not so grand and that vitality and significant form reside in all creation. Picasso would be applauding and so, I think, would Darwin, who first noted the similarity between animal and human expressions.
Peter Forbes is a writer, journalist, and editor with a longstanding interest in the relationship between art and science. He is the author of The Gecko’s Foot and Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage (available from Yale University Press). Since 2004 he has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. In March 2011 he was awarded the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing for Dazzled and Deceived.