Last Laughs: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Graffiti has come along way since the 70s. Once an art form (or vandalism and public nuisance to some) typified by exotic tags on a canvas of urban decay, experimentalists and pioneers have broken boundaries in both content and medium. Freeform gave way to stencils. Stencils to prints. Prints to three-dimensional forms. And so forth. Graffiti has always been subversive, posing that looming threat of unregulated public voice. But lately, structures of an otherwise tame and guarded environment have been seized for overt politics and amusing mockery as graffiti artists expose, even in the most simplest forms, oppression and contradiction. Unfortunately, as the art becomes simplified and more accessible than the elaborate typography that once dominated, it has become easily co-opted and commercialized. Such is the fate of subversive culture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mix of documentary and possible sham, one engineered by the immensely popular, but cleverly elusive  master of public mockery: stencil graffiti artist, Banksy.  The film was supposedly borne out of French shop owner, Thierry Guetta’s obsessive compulsiveness and attraction to the grandiose. Getting his hands on a video camera, he began to record everything, no matter how mundane the event. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died, he claimed the new found hobby satisfied his compulsion to hold on to the life around him. Soon, all this filming leads him to a new objective: a documentary about street artists.

Guetta began by accompanying his cousin Invader — famed in the underground world for his tiled mosaic replicas of characters from 8 bit video games — recording his (somewhat) covert assault on the city. While the camera would no doubt make most graffiti artists skittish, Guetta shared in their risks; traveling, scaling walls, and posting lookouts with guys like attention-friendly Shepard Fairey (the mastermind behind the Obey slogan and iconic Obama portrait), and DC’s own exiled tagger, Borf, earning Guetta credibility and access to their underground network by those who applaud his documentarian question. While Exit the Gift Shop is no doubt entertaining, This occupies much of the first half of Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is quite distinct from what will follow as a documentary of street artists at work eventually gives way to focusing on one in particular: Guetta himself.

Enter Banksy, the stencil graffiti artist who may well be considered one of the kingpins of the contemporary underground because, even after crossing into the mainstream, so little is known about him. Even as one of the central personalities of the film, he disguises his voice and hides his face while providing substantial (deflective) commentary and offers viewers a glimpse inside his workshop. You could probably accurately log into Interpol that he’s a white guy. Well-read. And maybe married (he wears a ring). Or, he could be this guy.

Yet, despite his power to generate massive crowds of hungry spectators — a new piece lures pedestrians on a sidewalk to snap a picture with their cellphones; an art opening in LA brings out high profile celebrities; and, an art collector places a value on Banksy’s work as equal to that of Picasso and Warhol — he claims that he’s made this film about Guetta because he himself is not all that interesting. Eventually the two are introduced, and between Banksy’s deadpan wit and Guetta’s disjointed elaboration, the movie takes on a hilarious, Vaudevillian quality.

While he may claim himself not to be all that interesting a person, Banksy tends to stand apart from other street artists shown in the film. That may be because more is revealed about the others’ application of their craft rather than their motivation, but Banksy’s purpose is most overt: his products and the very process by which he creates them mock the space in which sits. From the stencil graffiti of the little girl frisking the soldier, to the modified painting he quietly hangs in a popular museum, to the ballsy infiltration of the Happiest Place on Earth where he constructs a Guantanamo Bay-inspired setting, it’s all amusing juxtaposition. (Borf was notable for aesthetic mockery too, but on a more personal level: when the city of DC suddenly took notice of what they deemed a rampant threat, Borf wages a campaign of dares and his trademark images plastered across interstate street signs made it hard to ignore his presence).

By the second half of the movie, when Banksy and Guetta begin collaborating, the joke on the audience suddenly begins to seem plausible; everything too outrageous to be true, especially when Guetta, by Banksy’s urging, starts producing his own graffiti, branding himself Mr. Brainwash, a pseudonym that is simultaneously appropriate and antithetical in the street art world.

Ever the loyalist to the grandiose, Guetta eventually moves beyond putting paint to the wall and opens a graphic arts studio in L.A. By now, stencil graffiti has taken on a standardization with that ironic mix of pop culture and politics, and Guetta follows the formula, producing so much work that he eventually decides to rent an abandoned television studio and open a show that will cater to thousands of spectators. He’s got visions of plum fairies dancing in his head — it can’t just be a show. It has to be big!

Basically, a monster is created. And, it seems to happen rather quickly. The other artists featured in this film are both baffled and resentful by this recent nobody’s sudden rise to fame. Especially when, like the puppet boy band hand-picked to perform other people’s music on a major label — his fame is driven by disingenuous art. Banksy reflects: “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art… I don’t do that anymore.”

This is a documentary marketed as the “World’s First Street Art Disaster Movie,” and things haven’t gotten quite outrageous enough. Even though he’s never put together an event of this scale before, Guetta’s audacious quest becomes a Reality-TV styled drama as he, along with a massive overworked and underpaid crew race to fill the huge studio, publicize the show, and garner a crowd on little time and money. Of course, this being LA, and Mr. Brainwash’s work being basically pop art, it isn’t surprising when the headline-conscious patrons start hungrily forming lines at the studio’s gates. And the show is so popular that Guetta even extends the duration of the show. (He even recently brought the show to NYC).

He is kind of like the Malcom McLaren of the street art world, although he doesn’t seem to approach as, “how can I make a lot of money on this?” But, with little effort, he was able to capitalize on pop culture’s drive for superficial consumption (which Banksy has always emphasized in his work). Needless to say, by the end of the film, Guetta’s alienated himself from the street artists he previously worked with. I wouldn’t call them former friends, since they always seems to be sort of hands-off with him, like the way you decide a person is too crazy to deal with, but crazy enough not to want to make it too obvious that you’re suspicious.

Banksy, at the end, says he’s not sure who the joke is on. I’m leaning on the joke being on the audience. Banksy is the king of cultural mockery. And this is a story just too outrageous to be true.

One Response

  1. […] wrote about this on the Muvika blog last year and speculated that there was just too much outrageousness to accept it all as truth. Not that  […]

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