After all those debates about the meaning of art; all those passionate arguments on either side of the fence in which esteemed cultural critics deemed one another as either out-of-touch or out-of-their mind. Who would have thought that the best and most incisive comments on the argument would have come from street-punk Banksy? He’s the scourge of the street-cleaners and champion of the graffiti-rati. Now he can add genius documentarian to his credits. His feature-film debut Exit Through The Gift Shop is as much a blissful celebration of the street-art scene as it is an unrelenting pointed finger at the hypocrisy of artists, critics, collectors, hipsters, scenesters, yous-and-me-sters. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, and perhaps even an elaborate hoax. It’s a piggyback ride through a rarely-documented phenomenon. And best of all, it’s electrifying.
I say that Exit Through The Gift Shop is Banksy’s feature film debut despite the fact that this film has no credited director. This is indeed A Banksy Film, but the extent of his authorship is questionable. In fact, it’s damn impossible to figure out the extent of his involvement. Although we are introduced to a mysterious hooded figure with a distorted voice claiming to be Banksy, it’s completely reasonable to assume that even this is simply a stand-in for the enigmatic street artist. He’s the controversial star at the forefront of a controversial movement. Some have trouble defining the difference between street-art and tagging, and as far as I can figure it out, it comes down to creativity and ingenuity. Anyone can spray a C&B onto the side of a building, but to totally redesign an entire billboard in the dead of night? Sure, I’ll pay that as ‘art’.
The film begins with the mysterious hooded figure (who may or may not be Banksy) informing us that we are about to watch a film about Thierry Guetta, a French emigrant living in Los Angeles, obsessed with documenting every spectacularly mundane moment of his life. He’s a regular Man With A Movie Camera. Bored of simply capturing and recapturing his family life, Guetta finds himself (accidently) at the forefront of the street-art scene in L.A. His cousin Invader, and eventually Shepard Fairey (creator of the iconic Barack Obama “Hope” image) charge Guetta with the task of recording their unique and provocative ‘public installations’ before they can be painted over or removed. The problem is, Guetta is an empty vessel of a filmmaker, recording every moment with no intention of ever turning it into a film. He’s all input and no output, but that doesn’t quell his puppy-dog enthusiasm to become the Leni Riefenstahl of the street-art scene.
Now, those of you concerned about having the film’s third act “spoiled” may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph. Guetta soon becomes obsessed with meeting, abetting and documenting the notorious Banksy. He succeeds, and eventually Banksy flips the camera on Thierry, showing us his transition from eager-assistant to art-world icon Mr. Brainwash. Guetta/Mr. Brainwash’s main intention is to create images that brainwash, or create images of cultural icons that brainwash, or something like that. I don’t think he quite understands what he’s doing either. He doesn’t so much “draw” or “paint” as he does “create”, and by that I mean he employs graphic designers and artists to scan, redesign and print out pieces as he sees fit. His art is a mixture of Banksy’s satirical contrasts, Fairey’s recontextualised icons and Andy Warhol’s repetition. So basically, it’s meaningless pop-art. Or is it? Even the spurned Banksy and Fairey can’t quite figure out if they have any cause to be upset about Guetta’s art. Does he rip them off? Is that not a valid way to create “art”? Do they create anything worthy of being ripped off? Is not the passion to be an artist and the understanding of what deserves to be ripped off not an artistic talent in itself? Hey, why you asking me?!
There is a distinct possibility that Mr. Brainwash is a creation of Guetta and Banksy’s devising. In fact, it’s possible that Guetta himself has been invented for the sake of this doco. But, it’s hard to say. He’s an oddball character, and his is an oddball story. But too much of the film seems genuine (particularly the film’s first two acts) to call it all a fakery. And let’s face it – the doco Capturing the Friedmans features an equally bizarre (if more tragic) video-happy family at its center. Could this be a perfect storm of art imitating life imitating art? Whether it’s all true or only half-true or not true at all, Exit Through The Gift Shop will most certainly sit at the focal point of many future arguments about the nature of art. Banksy doesn’t attempt to define it; instead, he lampoons the ridiculousness of the argument, even taking pot-shots at himself where appropriate. Banksy can’t quite justify why he or Fairey deserve more praise than the vapid Mr. Brainwash. Because he came first? Because it’s his film? (By the way, I hope you’re not waiting for either myself or the film to answer any of these questions. That’s where you come in.)
Beyond all the debates about the film’s meaning and accuracy, it’s important to note just how exuberant and exciting this picture is. There are sequences of such joy, like Guetta riding on the back of his heroes’ motorbikes around L.A. as they (literally) paint the streets red. The movie, intentionally or not, is also hilarious (no doubt many an art collector will be shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they watch themselves portrayed as chumps of the highest degree). Whether this film is a hoax or not is irrelevant. What’s important is that the point is made, and the questions (infuriatingly listed above) are raised. This film is a cleverly constructed amusement park ride; a tour through the world of street art which ends not at the closing credits but instead during your conversations afterwards. “We hope you enjoyed the ride, now, please exit through the gift shop…”
Exit Through The Gift Shop can be seen across Australia on the following dates at the following locations:
Melbourne – June 3– 18 – ACMI Federation Square
Sydney – June 2–14 – Sydney Film Festival
Brisbane – June 4–14 – Tribal Theatre, George Street
Adelaide – June 4–14 – Mercury Cinema
Perth – June 10-23 – Luna Leederville
Canberra – June 11-14 – National Gallery of Australia