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The Gift that Keeps Us Guessing

June 4, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop

A classic example of Banksy's subversive, gimmicky street art that sorta kinda serves as the subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a knowing exploration of the aesthetic, financial and ethical issues surrounding street art, hidden under the guise of a hilarious story about a talentless fool who hangs on the fringes of the scene. The fact that the fool may not exist hardly matters. If we take Exit at face value, it’s a twisting, amusing adventure that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste. If we see it as a hoax, it becomes a twisting, amusing joke… that demonstrates how easily hype can manipulate art world taste.

Street art exists at the intersection between pop art, graffiti, performance art, vandalism, protest art and straight-up pranking. It’s usually not particularly complex—one of the most ubiquitous examples is a stencil of Andre the Giant’s face with the word “OBEY” in block letters—but it tries to make up for its simplicity through inventiveness, cleverness and how-the-hell-did-they-get-that-there logistical audacity. Its most famous practitioners are the mysterious, never-photographed Banksy, and Shepard Fairey, now best known for his red-and-blue Obama “HOPE” poster. Both figure prominently in Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Banksy directed it—a tip-off that in this documentary, not everything (perhaps even nothing) is what it seems.

According to narrator Rhys Ifans, Exit Through the Gift Shop is about Thierry Guetta, an exuberant roly-poly Frenchman who started making a film about street art and then became one of its most successful adherents, making a million dollars from a single exhibition while working under the handle of “Mr. Brainwash.” The film claims that Guetta, the owner of a vintage clothing store in L.A. and an obsessive videographer, became the unofficial chronicler of street art nearly 10 years ago after watching his cousin, “Invader,” plaster Paris with stickers of Space Invaders icons. When he finally got around to paring down the tens of thousands of hours of footage into an hour-and-a-half film, Banksy found the result so incompetent that he took over the project—and directed Guetta to put on his own art exhibition. Which Guetta dutifully did because, as this film argues, Banksy is never, ever wrong about anything. As Guetta unhelpfully describes him, “He’s really like what he represents.”

Exit Through the Gift Shop is composed of low-quality video footage of street artists in action (which is to say, doing mostly illegal stuff) and talking head interviews with Guetta, Fairey, Guetta’s wife and Banksy himself—who is filmed covered in shadows, his voice distorted into an English-accented bass growl. It’s narrated by Ifans, a fine British actor with a seductive Welsh accent. The soundtrack obliges with all the right notes, bringing a carnival-esque orchestral score to Fairey’s misadventures putting up his OBEY posters and appropriately minor chords to the story of Guetta’s troubled childhood. While much of the footage of street artists looks the same—fuzzy, poorly lit images of white guys pasting giant stickers on walls—Banksy keeps things bouncy by ending the sequences with a goofy pratfall or arrest (an effective trick stolen wholesale from skateboarding videos). Which is all a long way of saying that Banksy knows how to make a very effective traditional documentary—even when what he is documenting is probably largely fabricated.

See, Banksy is known for his gags, such as the time he put a live elephant in the room (get it?) at his debut art show in the U.S., or the time he planted a handcuffed, hooded blow-up doll in an orange jumpsuit in Disneyland at the height of the Guantanamo Bay mishegas. Perhaps his greatest gag is that he has been a darling of the art world for a number of years and has been widely written about and interviewed, yet has never revealed his identity or his face. Some speculate that Banksy is not an actual person but rather an avatar for an artists’ collective. Some also say there is no Thierry Guetta.

According to this interpretation (which I tend to buy), Banksy gathered footage from the street artists themselves and footage that Guetta (or whatever his real name is) had taken of his family over the years. Banksy then got Fairey and a few others on camera to talk about how Guetta followed them for years, and had Guetta make up an elaborate backstory involving his childhood, his obsession with videography and his grandiose, but intellectually bankrupt, art ambitions. Then, in 2008, Banksy put on a massive show of painfully derivative Fairey, Banksy and Warhol-inspired art in a shuttered studio in L.A. and made Guerra—AKA Mr. Brainwash—his frontman. The goal? To show that with the proper amount of hype (and endorsements from Banksy and Fairey), audiences and art collectors would gobble up anything that had the imprimatur of “authentic” street art. What makes Exit Through the Gift Shop so darn clever is that it doesn’t really matter whether Banksy made up Mr. Brainwash or not. The show was a hit, and people paid thousands for the work on display.

As a side benefit, Exit Through the Gift Shop works as a deliriously effective bit of self-promotion for Banksy, whose integrity as an artist WHO IS NOT IN IT FOR THE MONEY is continually contrasted with Guetta’s visions of fame and fortune. Fairey, Banksy and everyone who helped fabricate the works at Mr. Brainwash’s show disparage his dim-witted intentions and his hopeless disorganization, all the better to demonstrate that Fairey and Banksy are “real” artists. What I kept wondering was: what makes one street artist any more “real” than another? Mr. Brainwash’s Campbell Soup spray-paint cans may owe an enormous debt to Warhol, but doesn’t Banksy’s own “Question Time”—a painting of Parliament filled with chimpanzees—remind you just a bit of “Dogs Playing Poker”? L.A. audiences may not have been able to distinguish between good street art and bad street art, but in a genre that is fundamentally derivative, subversive and repetitive, can anyone? Banksy, who has now made millions off his work, may see himself (selves?) as nothing more than a master con artist whose primary talents are a flair for controversy and a feel for what people think is “cool.”

So I stand corrected: Exit Through the Gift Shop is the story of a fool. Whether that fool is Guetta, Banksy or us depends on your perspective.

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