Exit Through the Gift Shop

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February 15, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

“You’re shocked when the spray can splatters,
Deliver us from the chumps and suckers,
You and me killing time in the present tense,
Bound together by someone to fight against.”1

This is the second documentary in as many weeks that has challenged my notion of what a documentary can be. Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here was a meta-hoax about fame-worship. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop deals with similar issues and is allegedly authentic, but features more bizarre characters and plot twists than an early M. Night Shyamalan film. It centers on an obsessive French photographer named Thierry Guetta, who began documenting the work of graffiti artists in the late ’90s (the idea came about while watching his cousin, who adopted the moniker Space Invader after creating 8-bit-video-game-style tile paintings). Guetta ingratiates himself with the underworld of art vandals, following them up to the tops of buildings in the middle of the night to capture their rogue installations.

Bouncing between Europe and L.A., he eventually meets Shepard Fairey, the godfather of prankster/meme graffiti. Fairey began his career by plastering stickers and large posters of Andre the Giant on buildings, bus stops, and anywhere else he could place images where they didn’t belong—underneath the stark black-and-white drawing was the word “Obey” in white and red letters (the artist claims that he’d posted more than a million Obey pieces all over the world). Guetta catches up with Fairey in a Kinko’s print shop as he prepares yet another large-scale banner (for those keeping track of the timeline, this is several years before the artist would gain mainstream global recognition for creating the iconic Obama campaign posters).

If Shepard Fairey is the godfather of prankster/meme graffiti (okay, I made that up), then English-born Banksy is the God. And once Guetta gets into Fairey’s good graces, he has the opportunity to meet and document Banksy. There are conditions, however: Banksy must be filmed from behind or at three-quarter angles; no facial shots (those that appear in the movie have been digitally scrambled); and the artist has the right to review all footage taken of him. What separates Banksy from his contemporaries is not just the audacity of his statements (painting holes in the West Bank wall; sneaking into and hanging framed pictures in the British Museum; installing an inflatable Gitmo detainee at Disneyland) but also talent and imagination.

Allow me to editorialize for a moment. The first twenty minutes of Exit Through the Gift Shop were extremely frustrating. I brought a bias into this movie, as I’ve never been a fan of graffiti or vandalism as an art form. My reasoning is that unless you’re engaged in an actual political uprising, you should either confine your art school pretensions to a studio, or sign up for a public exhibition. Guetta follows a lot of people around and films them spray painting buildings and gluing large drawings onto walls in areas with lots of foot traffic. These images are invariably silly and few of them show any evidence of artistic skill—which I could forgive, if there were a message or a point beyond “Fuck the system”.

Watching these clowns, I wondered if anyone had ever asked them if they saw a correlation between their pointless pranks and the increase in tax dollars and goods, stemming from having to clean up these projects and chase down their creators; in the end, the system doesn’t care, and will simply transfer the fucking to the lower-class schmucks shaking their cans of Cerulean Blue. It all smacks of a need for attention and understandable fears of never amounting to anything: after all, what does one accomplish by spray painting Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Samo” tag on a wall, twenty-five years after his death? The film’s answer is “nothing”, and “everything”, and I’ll come to that in a minute.

Getting back to Banksy, here’s a guy who doesn’t limit himself to twenty-foot-stenciled paintings; he’s got a team of co-conspirators and a studio in which he cuts a telephone booth in half and welds it back together at an odd angle before depositing it back on the street. At his first legit exhibit in L.A. he had an elephant brought into the gallery painted trunk to tail in the colors of the space’s wallpaper. It’s still not clear what Banksy’s point is, but at least he doesn’t force the public to look at images they can simply shrug off. Around the time of the L.A. show, Banksy tells Guetta that he wants to see the documentary cut together and distributed in order to capitalize on the heat. This is a problem, considering we learn that Guetta A) has no experience as a filmmaker and B) has hundreds of thousands of tapes stashed in Rubbermaid tubs from his years of documenting everything—and few of them are labeled. What he does put together is an early-MTV-style ninety-minute montage that, from the couple of minutes we see in this movie, is completely unwatchable.

Shocked, but not wanting to send his madman companion over the edge, Banksy suggests that Guetta head to the States and launch his own art career. He does this in grand fashion, mortgaging his home and business to hire a staff of production artists and renting a multi-story building to serve as his studio/gallery space. He creates a new version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, minus the legwork of actually producing art. It’s not long before he’s got an ad in L.A. Weekly promoting the debut show of his new alias, Mr. Brainwash.

This is the meatiest and most meaningful section of Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I’ll leave it for you to discover. I will say that it’s the starting point for the movie eating itself like an ouroboros. The work that Guetta creates in the frenzied weeks leading up to the show are completely derivative of other artists’ pieces, from Warhol to Banksy to Shepard Fairey, with some Basquiat thrown in for good measure. What’s fascinating is not Guetta’s acknowledgment that creating modern art can be as simple as spray painting an eye patch on a print-out of The Mona Lisa and selling it for $18,000, but the fact that he becomes an overnight sensation doing what his contemporaries struggled for years to achieve.

I find it hilarious that Fairey and Banksy turn on Guetta at the end of the picture, dismissing his stuff as flavor-of-the-moment art-collector-fodder when, in terms of quality and subject matter, Guetta’s output is no different than their own. Banksy even says that he used to tell everyone he met that they should create art, but that he doesn’t do that anymore. Is the big secret that becoming an art star really is all about publicity and the depth of your customers’ pockets? There are a lot of great, deep questions posed by Exit Through the Gift Shop, the biggest being, “Is this all a hoax?” Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are real people, but this movie is so perfectly weird in all the right places that one can feel an unseen hand pulling the levers. Guetta is referred to in the past tense a lot, and most of the interview footage we see of him is archival—I don’t know if there’s any from the Mr. Brainwash period; there’s a lot of footage of Guetta being filmed in his gallery and putting up art, which begs the question, “Who is filming Guetta?” Did he hire someone to do this? Did Banksy? If so, does that imply that Banksy had intended to turn the rise and fall of Mr. Brainwash into a movie in the first place?

The brilliance of the film is that it’s so full of weird eccentric characters and story arcs that we forget we may be watching the equivalent of reality television (specifically, the staged Oprah-style “surprise” shots where a camera crew knocks on someone’s door to offer them a once-in-a-lifetime prize; these scenes often have a shot from inside the house to make it more dramatic—meaning the person can’t be too surprised, since they have a camera and lighting crew hanging out in their vestibule, waiting for a knock at the door—but we often don’t notice, as our decades of watching scripted dramas have made this trick virtually invisible).

I love the way this movie challenges both my perceptions of graffiti and art in general. It’s also another one of those rare pictures that made me want to abandon it early on, but rewarded my patience with an extraordinary look at the lives of deranged, driven people. It doesn’t matter if any of Banksy and Guetta’s story is real, or if it’s another public spectacle meant to make rubes scratch their heads. Exit Through the Gift Shop is more genuine and engrossing than most movies you’re likely to see.

1 Third Eye Blind, “Danger”

[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 01/07/11.]

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