The recently-released-on-DVD film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (here’s a clip) is ostensibly about an eccentric Frenchman with a handlebar moustache named Thierry Guetta, who rises from being the owner of a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles to an art world superstar. I say ostensibly because it is quite difficult to tell to what extent this whole unlikely story is an elaborate hoax conceived by the shadowy British artist known as Banksy. You have probably run across Banksy’s subversive, pop-culture-skewing street art even if you didn’t know it was by him, probably on a T-shirt or poster (which he would not be very happy about):
Banksy is fairly notorious in the art world for staging covert art installations in ‘public’ spaces like Disneyland, making big statements with big materials (such as including a live, painted elephant in his L.A. show), as well as surreptitiously putting up some of his own work on the wall at important galleries like New York’s MoMA, serving as a sort of sociopolitical commentary on the famous works already there:
It is his mysterious anonymity, however, that is probably the most intriguing facet of his work. Who is Banksy?
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” begins with our ingenue Thierry Guetta getting a camcorder, which much to his wife’s chagrin he uses to record every minute detail of his life. This urge to film drives Thierry to become an obsessive documentarian of the street art movement, filming tape after tape of artists like Shephard Fairey and Space Invader as they spray-paint and poster their way across the urban landscape of L.A. Eventually he crosses paths with Banksy, and begins to follow him in all of his covert artistic operations, under the pretense of making a documentary. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Thierry is a completely inept filmmaker, so in a strange reversal Banksy takes the reins and starts making a film about Thierry. And then, in an even stranger role change, Thierry decides despite his near-total lack of artistic skill to become a street artist himself, adopting the moniker “Mr. Brain Wash” and mounting an ambitious, over-the-top exhibition of his own art. Somehow Thierry becomes the celebrated artist, and Banksy (an anonymous figure who only appears in shadows, his voice disguised) is left shaking his head at how a non-artist (and failed filmmaker) has made himself into an art-world brand.
There are lots of interesting problems that this film poses. What is art? The guerilla, anti-establishment style of street art, where the rebellious act of creative expression happens on building walls, sidewalks, rooftops, changes somehow when brought into the permanent, regulated space of the gallery. Can politically subversive art be turned into a commodity – put on a mug, calendar or T-shirt and sold in a gift shop – without compromising its message? Who is the artist? Can anyone pick up a spray can, deface a billboard and call it art? Or can anyone consider themselves a great artist if they just adopt the style of the day (“pop art” one day, street art the next) without defining their own style? These are tricky questions, even trickier as they are wrapped up in even more perplexing ones: Who (or what) is Banksy? Who is Mr. Brain Wash? Are they two sides of the same coin? Who put on the MBW gallery show? And how does this “documentary” film fit into all of this? Someone should call up that kid from “My Kid Could Paint That.”
In any case, the film is a wild ride through the commercialized, bizarre world of contemporary art, perhaps not so unlike the Disney ride that figures so prominently in one of Banksy’s stunts… a rollercoaster that, when it comes to a full and complete stop, conveniently drops us off so we can pick up a souvenir T-shirt on the way out.