PARIS — I shall spare my readers today a highfalutin reflection on the obsolescence of the French Fifth Republic, evolutions in Romanian culture or the worldwide rise of the extreme Right — thanks to Banksy! The uber-famous but ever elusive London street artist recently returned to the limelight with another of his visual pranks: shredding by remote-control one of his works just as it was auctioned off for a huge sum. It was a public intervention mixing Marcel Duchamp's cheeky urinal with Pierce Brosnan's ruthless elegance in The Thomas Crown Affair, that has again made Banksy the source of planetary surprise, mirth and amusement.
As a reputed critic of consumer culture, Banksy may have sought with his stunt to depict the art market as inane. About a decade ago he caused a stir auctioning off a work of his entitled I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit. Yet in a perverse reverberation of that act, signed prints of the same drawing sell today for considerable sums. Collectors love to be despised this way: It's so chic. Their revenge is to buy out their critics, in a subtle dialectic where the hammer becomes dominant and the rebel artist is relegated to court jester. The art market engulfs its opposites and turns art into business, and moneymaking into an art, following Andy Warhol's enduring recipe.
Banksy's Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit — Source: WikiArt
Thus over a weekend last month, the trap Banksy had carefully laid out — which, if a video to be believed, included placing a shredder in his picture's frame way back in 2006 — closed in on its own creator, for the price of that shredded picture is estimated to have already doubled! As the auctioneer's hammer fell, the mechanism was triggered, a siren went off and a room full of opulent buyers raised their phones in collective urgency. Within seconds, a plucky collector (or was it Banksy?) had bought a picture, lost a piece of art and made a big profit. That could be the real meaning of Balloon Girl, the (shredded) picture of a little girl releasing a heart-shaped balloon: Feelings fly away, innocence is worn out and there is no trusting either children or artists.
Banksy's fate reminds me of the hippies who went to live in Auroville in southern India and were forced to reintroduce money; or the Anglican clergy in a Church that has billions of pounds invested in the stock market; anti-fascist protesters protected by state forces; mutual society members who somehow manage to raise funds or anarchists who call the police after a burglary. Capitalism and its legion of personal rights are irresistible.
The reality of doing business has caught up with him.
As the economist Hernando de Soto shows in his work on shantytowns, market principles resurge spontaneously amid the cracks of "alternative" projects. And thank goodness: Who would not prefer an erratic art market fed by reputedly abundant capital funds, to centralized culture policies that favor perks and nepotism? This incident could become a parable on the impossibility of being anti-capitalist. Banksy won fame by playfully spreading a subversive — though ultimately fairly mundane — message against war, profits and those with power.
Miss. Tic graffiti in Paris — Photo: Fridolin freudenfett
But the reality of doing business has caught up with him. His firm, Pest Control, is today negotiating its trading and copyrights. His street art or wall graffiti are often cut out by unscrupulous property owners, prompting bitter legal fights between wall owners, local communities and public space attorneys. Likewise the graffiti artist Miss. Tic, whose works in Paris accompanied me for years as I walked to school, is now making copyright claims over her work.
This does not of course negate the presence of a tiny minority of veritable saints, geniuses and aesthetes established on the fringes of our social and economic order. But Banksy is not one of them, or he would have utterly destroyed his picture, and all its economic value. He would have burned or annihilated it. Or he would have stayed in a remote, woodland cabin like the American novelist Henry David Thoreau. He might have quietly disappeared like Tolstoy, who left home to live his final days as a vagabond, lost among the Russian peasantry. The truly rebellious never wind up in the news.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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