Movie review: Exit Through The Gift Shop

Posted by Bel. The time is 3.47pm here in Wellington NZ.

What happens when underground art is exposed to the glare of a camera lens? Does talent shine the brightest? Or does exposure just bring out the worst of the art world: hype, greed and bloody long queues?

Exit Through The Gift Shop is not a Banksy biopic. In fact, I'm guessing all those straight-to-camera interviews, even with the shadowy lighting and distorted voice, are still not the man himself.

It is an exploration of what street art has become, thanks to Banksy. Because of Banksy, and our fascination with him. Our desire for art to be accessible and yet still edgy, to feel like an outsider and to be included. To be able to stand up and say something and to still look cool while doing it. And, you know what? To make a shitload of money too.

Thierry Guetta was a man with a video camera. All the time. He fell into the street art scene at the right time, and after a decade of film incessantly, and telling everyone he met he was making a documentary, he'd accumulated literally thousands of tapes.

[I googled to try and find a screengrab of the scenes where they show the boxes and boxes and boxes of tapes that he had, but no dice. But. Oh my god. Seriously. As someone who is by nature messy and by daily conscious decision tidy, it gave me the sweats.]

He had hours (days, weeks) of footage of every street artist you could imagine - in particular, a guy who was getting up called OBEY. Also known as Shepherd Fairey, also known as the guy who did that Obama poster and then got sued.

Eventually Fairey introduced Guetta to Banksy. Guetta nearly dies of excitement. His incoherence in describing this is one of the highlights of the film. (Imagine Inspector Clouseau crossed with Anna Paquin's Oscar acceptance speech.)

The extremely condensed version of what happens next is:
  • Guetta treats Banksy like it's prom night and shows him every good wall in LA
  • Banksy manages to wrangle the tapes off him after seeing a cut of the long-awaited documentary that looks more like something I made in 6th Form Media Studies
  • Guetta is encouraged instead to create his own street art and maybe even put on a show
  • Guetta decides his first show must be the Biggest Spectacular on Earth
  • He pretty much pulls this off
  • Every other street artist around kinda thinks he's a dick though
Guetta - now rebranded as Mr Brainwash - skips that whole part of an artist's career in which they might build up their portfolio/black book and skills and so on - and just takes over an enormous space in downtown Hollywood which he mortgages his house to refit as a purpose-built gallery.

He hires a legion of assistants, one of whom is seen with a heavily Post-It-ed art reference book, the annotated images of which he has been instructed to put into PhotoShop and apply effects to, before printing out and silkscreening into posters to frame. Voila! Art show a go go. With the egos to boot.

Although both Banksy and Fairey gave quotes to Guetta to use in the promotion of his debut exhibition, the film portrays them as, with hindsight, somewhat retiscent of this involvement. Is it because his five day show was extended to two months, and he sold $US1,000,000 worth of art in a week?

Or it is because his art is so goddam awful? Here's some recent Mr Brainwash stuff from a show this year. I must say I did LOL when Banksy made a comment along the lines of 'Andy Warhol repeated images until they meant something different... Thierry is just repeating them until they mean nothing at all'.

With its hero's journey of a man determined to reach the heights of those he idolises, Exit Through The Gift Shop is almost a morality tale, with a kick in the pants to those money grubbers who are in it for the wrong reasons. There's no doubt that Team Banksy is behind this film, as he is the one that comes out look like the cool cat...

The footage of Banksy in action has never been seen before, and is breath-taking. To see him (with an accomplice steadying the ladder) spray-painting his whimsical art onto the West Bank barrier is both inspirational and powerful. Full gallery of the works here at The Guardian.

Equally confrontational is his broad daylight planting of a replica Guantanamo Bay detainee in the middle of Disneyland. (Reminder: US President Barack Obama, who last year accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, made a promise to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba and has not yet done so.)

With Guetta filming all the while, Banksy simply jumps a fence and puts the orange jumpsuited, life-sized dummy in full public view of visitors to 'The Happy Place On Earth'. He then bolts it, with a change of clothes to secure his safe exit. Guetta was unaware the stunt had been planned and was apparently held for questioning for four hours; a useful accomplice or perhaps simply a decoy to the experienced man of mystery.

Let's not forget that Shepherd Fairey recently burst the bubble that Banksy is a lone ranger, after highly recognisable Banksy art went up rapidly in each of the American cities where Exit Through The Gift Shop premiered:
“To me, it doesn’t matter whether he was there... He orchestrated it. If you’re still into believing that Batman cleans up the city by himself, fine.’’
Fairey seems to be alluding that he ("he") may operate in a collective way, as does C215, Fairey himself, and numerous other graff writers and street artists. Taking this as fact, how is what Banksy does any different to Mr Brainwash's crash (and crass) attack on the street art world?

Banksy at least appears to have reconciled himself to the commercialisation of his chosen art form. In an interview this year with Time Out London, he said
"I plead not guilty to selling out. But I plead it from a bigger house than I used to live in."

4 thoughts on “Movie review: Exit Through The Gift Shop”

  1. Wow, clicked through to look at Brainwash's stuff and really don't like it - who the fuck are the people paying a combined total of $1m for that?? (Well, we know exactly who they are I'd say...)

    Definitely would like to see this, if only for the West Bank footage. I'm sure the whole thing will add up to my circular mind meltdown in relation to the dynamic of subversiveness versus commercialisation inherent in the mainstream street art landscape...

  2. I forgot to say that the other hilarious/cringe-worthy moment of the film was when the newly minted Mr Brainwash attempted to verbalise the significance and meaning of his artwork.

    He literally was not capable of it.

    I understand that some artists are shy, and some are not verbose, and some just prefer to express themselves through their art - and that's why they create! But this guy, oh no. He was just plain ole boring FULL O SHIT.

    And another really important point, that I should have articulated in my main post, was that I came away from the film feeling that it was another Banksy culture hijack - dishing up a bit of what the people like, but with tongue firmly in cheek at the same time.

    Throughout the film, we were shown artworks of his in different media: a stencil high up on a building in LA, with a rat scrawling "I'm up and dressed, what more do you want?"; in a London alley, he (with a team of assistants) went to great lengths to install a sculpture of a murdered telephone box; his former spokesperson was shown with the framed print of his tribute to Warhol, dull-eyed covergirl Kate Moss reproduced in pop art style. There was extensive footage of his contraversial use of a live elephant covered in paint (which mimicked the pattern of the wallpaper in the room... har har) as part of his first American exhibition...

    The documentary as a whole became yet another art piece in Banksy's repertoire, using conventions we can interpret, but twisting them slyly at the same time. Is the whole thing a joke? A hoax? Did he really make the film? Does he really make his stencils? Is it okay to do a big show and sell all your paintings to movie stars if you then go and spray global warming messages in London's canals?

    What is the sound of one hand clapping? Does it matter as long as the other hand is shaking a can?? Okay. I will stop talking about this movie now. It's just hard because I can't talk about Inception to anyone! Go see it already!

  3. Great review Bel!

    The defining moment in this doco that really stuck out to me was when one of Guettas assistants was holding the book with post-it-notes outlining pictures Guetta wanted to put into Photoshop to create his Warhol-esque rip offs. While I am all for what Photoshop can do for an artist it appears that this is a bit of a cop-out of Guettas part.

    I fully agree with your statement of how an artist usually builds a portfolio and hones their skill before they can reach the level of notoriety that Guetta reached withing mintues because of his contacts in the Street Art world.

    Maybe im just an old cynic or maybe even a tad bit jealous but I came away from the doco feeling a little bit empty, like I was a pawn in Banksys' and dare I say Guettas' game.

    Like my Mother told me once ''Never expect and you wont be disappointed''

    oO WWS Oo

  4. Finally just watched this. I thought it was brilliant for the completely enveloping knowingness of it. Almost like Banksy telling us all that he's one step ahead of us in deconstructing art culture no matter what angle we come at it from. Whatever and whoever he is, there's no denying that he is an actual genius - whether a genius for hisvart, or merely for his intense understanding and manipulation of culture.