Exit Through the Gift Shop
Film review by: Witney Seibold
A lot of people still aren’t sure whether or not Banksy‘s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is some sort of hoax. It started its life as a documentary being filmed by the compulsive camera-user Thierry Guetta. One of Thierry’s cousins, you see, became famous as a “street artist,” named Space Invader, and Thierry would sometimes sneak out onto the streets of Los Angeles with him, and film his illegal art installations, glued to freeway overpasses and onto public walls. Through Space Invader, Thierry fell in with many of the famed, graffiti-inspired street artists of the day, including people like Shepard Fairey, Zeus, and, ultimately, England’s Banksy. Thierry decided to make a documentary film about Banksy, and other street artists, but control of the film was gradually wrested away from him, and Bansky ended up taking away Thierry’s footage, and made the film more about Thierry than it was ever about Banksy.
Thierry, it turns out, was so inspired by his street artist friends, that he decided to become one himself. He copied the homemade, splattered “street” aesthetic of his peers, and took to the streets. His work was kind of derivative, and his spirit was not the casual anarchy that so marked his artistic peers. He was, indeed, kind of a scatterbrain; when Thierry tried to edit together a final film based on what he had filmed, it was an incomprehensible mess. He used money he didn’t have and fame he has stolen from others to become Mr. Brainwash, and put on a n immensely popular art show in L.A. that had no rhyme, no reason, and a whole lot to look at (thousands of painting were displayed, all made in a relatively short amount of time). It seems like the appearance of Mr. Brainwash in the world was the final death knell for the true underground punkrock attitude that street art had been working so hard to cultivate.
Whether a hoax or not, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a painful look at the gentrification and mainstreaming of an underground art form. As had happened with punk rock, as had happened with underground B movies, as had happened with hip hop, street art was taken to the masses, absorbed into the popular aesthetic, made “hip” by the hoi polloi, and robbed of its individuality, and original rebellious ideas.
It’s unclear if this was the natural result of Thierry’s relationship with Banksy, or if this was all a cleverly orchestrated comment on the way artistic movements evolve. Either way, this is a fascinating film. The outsize personality of Guetta paired with the relatively laidback anarchy of the artists he lives amongst is a fascinating look at people with a strong message, and a hanger-on who doesn’t have the smarts to really grasp what’s going on, other than to understand that it’s somehow important, and most definitely cool. It’s a classic example of misinterpreting a message. It’s like film producers who invest money in CGI programs that make it possible to blow up dozens of animated cars, not really realizing that an exploding car is only exciting because, somewhere, a hardworking filmmaker had to actually blow up a real car for us. They are unclear as to the purity of the images.
Or is this the theme of the film? Perhaps not. Perhaps Banksy is only making a long, protracted joke. His art, even more than his peers, was possessed of a MAD magazine-style sense of humor. He would riff on the urban landscapes he existed in. His art played a lot like clever comic strips, pasted onto London’s face (or Los Angeles’). “Exit Through the Gift Shop” may be a serious comment on the gentrification of the outsider, but it could also be Banksy taking the piss out of his own reputation; perhaps, he may be saying, street art is not so much an aesthetic or a movement as it is an outright playfully adolescent mockery of urban blight and The Squares. By assigning any level of “seriousness” to the art he makes would be to miss the point.
But then, at the film’s end, people like Shepard Fairey and Bansky himself seem to be lamenting the loss of something great, brought on by the moneyed overblown efforts of Mr. Brainwash. Perhaps this is something of a tragedy after all.