“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a nightmare of a film, but not in the way one might expect. Preconceptions of an aesthetically-pleasing, Banksy-produced documentation of Street Art tumble as quickly as one artist’s bucket of paint in the opening credits.
The documentary is a high-speed chase through the moon-lit streets of Los Angeles, guided by the amateur camerawork of the eccentric frenchman, Thierry Guetta. If you thought the highlight of this adrenalin-fuelled documentary would be the prolific and anonymous Banksy, you will be sadly mistaken. The maverick Guetta—otherwise known as Mr. Brainwash—takes center stage, plunging the film into a turbulent, artistic nightmare.
The film begins as a simple appraisal of street art, via the shaky lens of the camera-obsessed Guetta. He first trawls the streets of Paris, and then L.A., becoming the accomplice of numerous street artists. Guetta films almost every second of their work—the documentary is intense and fast-paced, twisting around every corner to capture a different artist at work: Shepard Fairey, Andre, Zeus, and Space Invader, to name a few.
Every moment mimics the exhilaration of the medium itself, as artists are chased off by the police midway through a piece. Guetta then achieves the inconceivable: he meets and becomes the aide of the elusive Banksy. Hooded and voice-dubbed, Guetta films Banksy in his workshop, cutting stencils and implementing his famous “Murdered Phonebox” piece in Central London. The footage is almost breath-taking, capturing in a few moments the comedy and tenacity of the street art phenomenon.
Street art is an underground movement which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of artists such as Blek le Rat, Basquiat, and the British anarcho-punk band Crass. In a youthful reclamation of the street, artists paint political messages and manifestos in an attempt to subvert both the popularized mass-consumption of art and its elitist status.
However street art is transient, technically ‘vandalism,’ and pieces are often removed mere hours after their creation. Its documentation is therefore of high value, as captured on film these images often outlast the pieces themselves.
But the film, although an important artifact of this transient genre, is also a critique of street art. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” takes a tragic plunge when, after eight years of gathering footage, Guetta abdicates the camera and begins to create his own street art. Re-naming himself Mr. Brainwash (MBW), Guetta begins to organize his own exhibition of street art, “Life is Beautiful,” despite his relative anonymity.
Renting a former Hollywood studio and filling it with over 200 paintings, sculptures and prints, and an installation of 25,000 books, the exhibition is of comically immense scale. But the media-hype and careful manipulation of marketing strategies ensures Guetta’s circus is a ground-breaking success.
The irony in this exhibitionist charade, despite the 4,000 people pouring through the doors on the first day alone, is the lack of ground-breaking inspiration in any of MBW’s work. His pieces are unoriginal. They resemble and imitate all of the work he has spent hours filming and abetting. Or, as Banksy himself states in the film, Guetta “repeated things until they became meaningless,” but through a careful marketing strategy he was able to package the street-art aesthetic, and to sell it. Essentially, Guetta cheated street art; he seized the art form, in the midst of its popularity, and turned it into a product of mass consumption.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is, much like its maker, both exhilarating and infuriating. It is brilliant, eccentric, and wild. The viewer gets precious glimpses into the creative process of Banksy himself as he hurriedly fixes, by flashlight, one of his infamous mouse stencils on a grimy Los Angeles street. But it is also highly provocative, as Banksy seizes this opportunity to critique our own defacement of this urban art form.
The documentary tells the real truth of Mr. Brainwash’s success: a success due not to creativity, but to careful marketing. The charisma of street art is its ideology, its opposition to the establishment of gallery art. It is art we all can appreciate and we all can contribute to.
However the documentary seeks to relay an important message: with the persistent desire to consume street art, to purchase pieces and support exhibitions, we are vandalising the walls upon which the form rests.