Parliament of the Apes

When I last visited Bristol in August of this year I took the opportunity to wander again around the Museum and Art Gallery, always a delight whenever back in the city I spent so much of my life in. As a way to distract from the never-ending crisis that is Brexit it is always a bonus to get a longer and more positive perspective on history and culture.

An unexpected highlight of my unhurried stroll within this temple of the Muses proved to be a temporary display of a large canvas. Entitled Devolved Parliament, it was created in 2009 by the Bristol artist known as Banksy. To the casual visitor the painting of the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament filled with chimpanzees may strike them as confusing or whimsical, but as with all this artist’s work there is more to this piece than meets the innocent eye.

This of course makes it an ideal subject for discussion in my series of occasional posts about the stories behind the images and other objets d’art housed in this Bristol building.

First, the title. Originally known as Question Time, the image depicted a primate minister apparently delivering an answer at PMQs or Prime Minister’s Questions; this is a mid-week event in the Commons when the government of the day is required to respond to queries from MPs of all political shades.

Although in 2009 the PM, Gordon Brown, was from the leftwing Labour Party, Banksy was possibly anticipating a coming rightwing government as the standing chimp is to the right of the Speaker’s chair, indicating their political allegiance.

In recent years it has been retitled Devolved Parliament. One’s first reaction is that it must refer to the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom, namely the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Senedd. But on reflection that cannot be so as the chamber is obviously in Westminster.

The second, more plausible, explanation is that we are to imagine that Members of Parliament have reversed evolution, regressing down the primate hierarchy. Certainly their behaviour, especially their shouting, hooting and baying at the opposite benches, may recall the aggressive posturing that occurs when two tribes of chimpanzees confront each other.

Although the journalists in the press gallery above the Speaker’s chair are also depicted as chimps, as if tarred with the same brush, I can nevertheless easily imagine this scene as a still from the latest sequel in the Planet of the Apes franchise — perhaps entitled Parliament of the Apes.

Half the fun comes from observing the actions and postures of the honorable members. Some are listening intently, others vociferously expressing disagreement. On the left one appears to be licking a plate while on the other side another is checking whether any alcoholic beverage remains in their bottle. One even appears to be picking their nose. (This was painted however long before one Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith, was shown live on BBC Parliament committing the very same gross act.)

In early October 2019 the canvas — the largest ever painted by the artist and originally completed for his one-man show at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery ten years before — was put up for auction at Sotheby’s by its private owner. Expected to sell at around the two million pound mark it eventually went, in less than a quarter of an hour, for £9,879,500, a record for a Banksy.

Quoting art critic Robert Hughes the artist expressed his dismay that instead of making us feel more clearly and intelligently, art’s new job was to sit on a wall and get more expensive.

Thank goodness none of this was on my mind when I saw the original in the summer; but whether locked in a vault or on public view its ability to make us consider whether power truly resides in the people or in an unaccountable moneyed elite is as pertinent as ever.

15 thoughts on “Parliament of the Apes

  1. I came to the same conclusion re the title, Chris, when I saw it earlier this year. As you say, it’s not hard to imagine the anti-establishment artist wanting to thumb his nose at our rabble of leaders, whichever side of the house they sit on. In a way it’s a shame his work has become so valuable – as suggested from your quote, it almost undermines the social and political points he’s trying to make, making his work part of the establishment. Good choice of painting

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I despair at art being seen as an investment rather for its intrinsic worth. When this next appears at auction I’d expect the new owner of this to make good on the nearly £10 million they spent on it. And yet what’s the betting but that this individual or investment bank is in cahoots (or at least on talking terms) with the kind of establishment figures this artwork is trying to excoriate? It’s like a businessman or politician acquiring a Gerald Scarfe cartoon savagely lampooning them or Rupert Murdoch acquiescing to the Mr Burns character on The Simpsons becoming a media mogul. Oh wait…

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/phone-hacking/8632272/Twitter-hilarity-as-Simpsons-poke-fun-at-Rupert-Murdoch.html

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha! Thanks for the link, Chris. The Simpsons team have always been very good at poking fun at the powerful. We can only hope that the multi millionaires who bought the art actually like it as well and it’s not just become another commodity in their portfolio

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh yes, Banksy doesn’t dissapoint! I loved this painting since I learned about it, but in the context of Brexit it just acquired a full new layer of meaning. To conclude with my favourite British Parliament quote, Order! Order! 😁

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  3. I’m not a huge fan of Banksy generally speaking but I do like this one – it can be analysed endlessly but still retains an element of humour. And we undoubtedly need that at the moment! I’ve reached a point where statistically I can only bear to listen to around 1.3% of all Parliamentarians… and even then I need to up my cake intake. 😉

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    1. I’m afraid it would require — not to put too fine a point on it — an enema to rid myself of the bile, the vile lies and slurs that certain politicians would pour into us. How they live with themselves I can’t begin to conceive, nor can I understand why anyone would vote for let alone trust such self-serving two-faced excuses for human beings — they almost seem to vie with each other for how big an outrage they can foist on the public. I have zero respect for any of those in the current government and even for a fair few in Her Majesty’s Opposition.

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  4. I recently heard Johnson and Trump described as Teflon politicians. They’re strange, populist creatures who can sink to whatever depths – criminal, immoral, lying, cheating, defaming, using their office for personal gain, swindling the public – and nothing sticks. It’s as if we’ve seen and heard so much about people in power that we don’t hold them accountable for anything, as if we believe them capable of anything. We just shrug and switch over to Strictly

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    1. I switch over to Strictly just to dissipate the anger I feel, Lynn, to witness collective support even within a nominal competition, to watch people being creative and trying their utmost best whilst also expressing genuine regret over the loss of a member of the Strictly family; and let’s not forget the international nature of the professionals — from Europe, Russia, the Americas, Africa, Australasia — in fact everything that this sordid, petty-minded, short-sighted, backward-looking, xenophobic Brexit catastrophe is not about. Fans of Teflon politicians have tribalism as their core value, not compassion.

      Oh, and did I mention I was angry?

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