“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is either a fascinating portrait of the growth of street art or an elaborate hoax. Documentary or visual art art project? Either way it is an engrossing movie about the creation of art, the exploitation of art and the meaning of art.
Directed by the acclaimed but unidentified street artist Banksy, a British pioneer of street art, blending graffiti, pop art with a satirical edge, it is allegedly the story of Thierry Guetta, a French videographer turned world famous artist. The film apparently blossomed from Guetta’s twin obsessions with videotaping everything in his day-to-day life and street art. He captured thousands of hours of graffiti artists in their natural habitat—painting on buildings and running from the police—as they created their own DIY art shows. Using consumer grade equipment he filmed some of the superstars of the field, Shepard Fairey (whose Barack Obama portrait later became the iconic image of the president’s campaign), France’s Space Invader and Banksy, the daring artist who once brazenly decorated the Israeli West Bank barrier. At Banksy’s suggestion Guetta put down his camera and reinvented himself as Mr. Brainwash, a street artist who hired a staff to create his art and threw one of the largest art shows Los Angeles had ever seen, grossing over one million dollars in two weeks. Not bad for an artist no one had ever heard of.
Banksy is by far and away the best known artist to emerge from the street art movement, but despite earning a world wide reputation (and the resulting pay cheques) he is an enigma. Never photographed (in the movie his voice is distorted and he is only shot form behind) he is a mystery and that’s why I use words like allegedly and apparently when I talk about this movie.
There is a rumor that given the movie’s strange provenance—it ostensibly began as Guetta’s home videos, turned into a doc on Banksy and then a movie about Guetta, because, as Banksy said, “Thierry is more interesting than me”—that Guetta is actually Banksy and the entire film is the artist’s provocative and beguiling comment on the art world.
Billed as “the world’s first street art disaster movie” it effectively documents how hype and a bit of nerve can be as important in the creation of an artistic movement as the art itself. Banksy, through carefully placed talking head segments (although his face is obscured by a black mask and hoodie) inserts some tantalizing insights into his world. “The reaction to the art is the most important thing,” he says of his street art, which, by its temporary nature is meant to provoke a response above all else. “I used to encourage everyone to make art,” he says later. “I don’t really do that so much anymore.” Is that a comment on the sudden rush of artists claiming street art as their own, or on Guetta or is it a joke, the punch line to Banksy’s 90 minute gag?
I don’t know, but I do know that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is one of the most thought provoking and entertaining docs to come down the pike in some time.