Tag Archives: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

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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