By AnnMarie Costella
Banksy, a British graffiti artist known for lampooning politics, culture and ethics, has created a disturbing animatronic world in which chicken nuggets dip themselves, hot dogs copulate and rabbits wear makeup. His powerful juxtaposition of animal and human behaviors will leave viewers questioning their consumer habits.
The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill, at 89 Seventh Ave. South, is a faux pet shop created for the sole purpose of Banksy’s art installation. A sign outside advertises, “Rare Breeds, Pet Supplies and Mechanically Retrieved Meats.”
Inside, realistic-looking animals and products made from animals move with eerie precision. The shelves are stocked with pet food, luncheon meats and TV dinners, none of which are actually for sale. The radio plays twangy country-western music, making the store seem stereotypically American.
In one window, a tiger appears to be lounging in a tree, its tail moving to and fro. But inside the store, viewed from the other side, the tiger turns out to be a fur coat with a label that reads, “Maurice Rothman, Chicago.”
Another window displays a barnyard scene with a stern-looking hen watching over baby-chick-shaped chicken nuggets, as they dip their heads in a packet of sauce. In the background, a hatched egg reveals a newborn nugget squirming to break free.
Nearby, a large, white rabbit wearing mascara and eye shadow gazes in a mirror and files its nails. Banksy has turned the tables on the inhumane cosmetics industry by constructing a ludicrous visual image that asks, “What if the animals we test makeup on actually wore makeup?”
Six rectangular glass tanks line one wall inside the store. Hot dogs and sausages slither in sand, lap up water from a small metal bowl and eat from a food dish containing green olives. In one tank, tiny yellow droplets drip from a vertically hung French’s mustard bottle. It is quite comical the way the hot dogs eat and drink the condiments that usually accompany them.
In the center of the store, a large Tweetie Bird sits inside a rusted bird cage that hangs from the ceiling. Banksy shows what would happen if a pet parakeet was constantly tormented and lived in fear (in this case, of Sylvester the Cat — Tweetie’s nemesis). Birds often lose their feathers when suffering from “stress molt” or “fright loss.” The familiar cartoon icon is completely bald and its bright-yellow feathers are strewn about the bottom of the cage.
Despite the powerful imagery, there is nothing in the installation to indicate that eating animals, wearing fur or keeping animals in captivity is wrong. Rather, Banksy registers his dissatisfaction with human treatment of animals by maximizing every inch of the space to create a world that is unnatural and uncomfortable, thereby forcing us to reevaluate our actions.
When Banksy presents a monkey surrounded by beer cans and pizza crusts, watching and rewatching a Discovery Channel clip of monkeys having sex, as if he’s some fat guy watching porn, the effect is truly sickening. It makes one wonder whether gawking at animals in captivity is a perverse invasion of their privacy.
The show’s subtlety is also its strength. If Banksy had chosen a more forceful approach, his work might have come off as the rant of an animal-rights extremist and drawn comparisons to the PETA members who threw red paint on fur coat-wearing women in the 1990s.
Consumers don’t think about the animals they eat while they are eating them or about the animals their fur coats came from while they are wearing them. But when Banksy combines the images of animals, both dead and alive, denial is impossible.
We are forced to realize that we use animals for our own selfish purposes.
However, the decision on whether eating animals or wearing their pelts is right or wrong is still left up to the viewer. Some might look at the chicken-shaped chicken nuggets and be disgusted, while others might see them as a quirky illustration of the food chain.
The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill is a fascinating, weird and outrageous spectacle that must be experienced firsthand. Just don’t ask: “How much is that chicken nugget in the window?” It’s not for sale.
The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill, 89 Seventh Ave. South, between Grove and Barrow Sts. is open daily, 10 a.m. until midnight, until Oct. 31.