» YES, BUT IS IT ART?: Clever Monkeys, Banksy, Kea (蔡孟达) and Thierry Guetta

by Brian Awehali

When we look at monkeys…we can see ourselves. Memory, morality, politics, depression? Monkeys have all of these, and more. But do they have art?

Kea, Planet of the Apes: EinsteinThe images in this (disjointed & metaphorically mean) post are by a talented Taiwanese “graffiti” artist named Tsai Mengda (蔡孟达), AKA Kea. One aspect of his aesthetic reminds me of Banksy, and Kea seems to want people to think of him in the same category. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but Banksy must be annoyed by how many of his “imitators” – Kea and Thierry Guetta, the documentarian-turned-art-monster depicted in Exit Through the Gift Shop, chief among them – seem so thoroughly to miss most of the political substance of his work.

In fact, the entire celebration of “street art” and graffiti by the art establishment must drive someone like Banksy up a very dark wall. You know something’s amiss when the Los Angeles aristocracy host a street art celebration at MOCA, even if this kind of appropriation is just Capitalism 101. (For more on this process, see Thomas Frank’s fabulous “Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism”)

Mark Frank, writing for Modern Art Asia had this to say of Kea and the phenomenon of gallery graffiti while blurbing an exhibition of Kea’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai in 2010:

KEA bills himself as Taiwan’s most famous graffiti artist, but he lacks the street-cred of true masters like Banksy. His modest reknown comes more from hanging his work on walls than defacing them. His work is a celebration of pop-consumerism that embraces everything the international millennial generation really drools over—sex, pirates, dinosaurs and name brands.

One wonders if any Western chauvinism informs Mark Frank’s vaguely damning blurb (an entire “international millenial generation” reduced to its alleged affection for four things?). Yet from all I have observed in East Asia this past year, it seems very likely that Kea’s work lacks the subversive political sophistication Banksy possesses, especially when it comes to critiques of consumerism. Kea is also a graffiti artist who displays his work only in permitted spaces, not as disruptions of public space, and there’s just not much common soil for critiques of consumerism to grow from. All obvious visual and drafting talent noted, Kea has far less imagination than Banksy for what lies outside the narrow bounds of the marketplace, and it doesn’t seem like Kea’s likely to do anything as edgy as what Banksy did, for example, with his guest “defacing” of the opening credits for The Simpsons:

I hesitated to post Kea’s image using President Obama’s likeness, for obvious reasons. To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything at all demeaning or “dehumanizing” about people being compared to, or rendered as, animals; I think we ARE animals, and in some ways, not even particularly good ones. These images might well be more insulting to monkeys, if they cared about representations of themselves or surfed the blogosphere. But my intent isn’t to insult anyone.

Kea, Planet of the Apes: Obama

I recently saw a BBC documentary from 2008, Clever Monkeys, narrated by Richard Attenborough, and though I’d read about various monkeys — particularly the bonobos — this documentary still surprised me at times. Those of you with interest and a smidgen of ingenuity can check it out in its entirety, here, or in 6 lower-res parts, here. A You Tube search on “clever monkeys” also turns up a treasure trove of simian wonders.

And here are two more from Kea’s monkey series….

Kea, Planet of the Apes: Dali

Kea, Planet of the Apes: Che

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