No one seems to know for sure if Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary or a prank played by street artist Banksy. Either way, it’s a fascinating portrayal of both the street art movement, pop culture and the strange point where the two meet.
The film starts out with Frenchman Thiery Guetta, the cousin of street artist Space Invader, filming various street artists in Paris, Los Angeles and other locations. Street art was the next phase of graffiti that became popular in the 1990s, and we see leading practitioners of this art, such as Shephard Fairey at work, painting their elaborate creations in prominent locations around cities. While some people label graffiti and street art simply as vandalism, and on one level it is -and I doubt that few street artists themselves would argue with this- much of it is also undeniably creative and original. While it’s sort of redundant to say it’s subversive, it may be one of the few statements that can be made nowadays that this could truly be said about, as there’s no commercial intent behind it. Or so it would seem.
Yet Exit Through the Gift Shop ends up being more about the commercialization of art than street art per se. When Thiery finally meets the mysterious English street artist Banksy, we watch him leave his mark around Los Angeles, London and, most daringly, on the infamous wall in the West Bank, right under the noses of military patrols. When Banksy pressures Thiery to put together an actual documentary, however, the result is a disaster and it’s revealed that Thiery knows nothing about filmmaking, so Banksy takes over the project and the focus turns on Thiery. That’s at least the official story, which hasn’t been confirmed to this day.
The denouement of the film comes when Thiery reinvents himself as Mister Brainwash and has a major opening in L.A. that turns him into a celebrity. At this point, a man who starts out as an amiable eccentric is transformed into a near megalomaniac who proclaims himself the next Andy Warhol. Indeed, many of his paintings are variations on Warhol’s themes, with lots of giant Campbell’s Soup cans, Elvis renditions and distortions of famous paintings. Despite the obviously derivative nature of his work, his opening is a huge success, and he goes on to design one of Madonna’s album covers. The people Thiery filmed earlier, from Fairey to Banksy are now less than enthralled with him, and the implication is that he is a sellout while the art critics and general public are gullible fools.
Taken at face value, the film doesn’t quite add up. Why would the anarchic Banksy put his name behind the film if he truly despised the result? The fact that we see Banksy himself with a very public art opening earlier in the film proves he isn’t as adverse to publicity as he pretends. Still, whatever we might suspect about Banksy’s intentions or honesty, he undoubtedly has real talent. In a review in the English paper The Sunday Times, Wendy Ide mentions that she once interviewed Banksy, and he revealed that It’s A Beautiful Life is his favorite film. Probably not coincidentally, that’s the name Thiery/Mister Brainwash gives to his art exhibit that Banksy allegedly had nothing to do with.
Exit Through the Gift Shop [Blu-ray] is a truly postmodern film about contemporary culture, which means its ultimate veracity, or lack thereof is of secondary importance at most. It causes the viewer to contemplate that ancient question, “What is art?” This makes it more meaningful than 99% of other contemporary films.
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