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REVIEW: Exit Through the Gift Shop

April 13, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop
A Banksy Film
 
I never pegged Banksy as a fan of gothic novels, but he and his crew pull off a pretty good Shelley impersonation. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a witty remake of Frankenstein, with Los Angeles vintage clothing shop owner-come-videographer-come-street artist Thierry Guetta playing the monster. We see mild-mannered Thierry move from an obsession with filming everything in his life, to an obsession with filming street artists, to Banksy reinventing him into a street artist out of control—”Mr. Brain Wash.” But more on that later.
 
From the beginning of the most recent street art explosion, Banksy has been the thinking man’s street artist. He (and his crew, he clearly doesn’t do much without a large support team, so for sake of argument, when I use the name Banksy here, I mean the collection of people that conceptualize, build, and install the artworks and events signed with the name “Banksy”) is the latest in a long line of counter-culture British satirists, from Jonathan Swift to Malcolm McClaren to Crass to the KLF, but like these greats before him, his cultural attacks on the status quo have hit the limits of their effectiveness. And he seems smart enough to know it. In some ways this film seems like part of the process of any cultural producer working through the challenging questions facing anyone with a deeply ambivalent relationship to capitalism. On the one hand war, torture, government surveillance, greed, poverty, apartheid, and genocide are all products of contemporary capitalism, and Banksy takes them all on in his own way. On the other, the ability to pull art stunts off across the globe is just as much a product of this very same system. Nothing illustrates this better than Banksy’s glib listing of the Disney Land rides he enjoyed while Thierry was in the Disney security dungeon being questioned for four hours after filming Banksy’s placement of a life-size orange-jumpsuited Guantanamo Bay prisoner doll into one of the rides.
 
For those that take offense to the description above of Banksy as the thinking MAN’S street artist, let’s not kid ourselves, this “movement” (as the film describes it) is largely a boy’s sport. Which is why it is no surprise that women take up about 5 minutes of the film’s hour and a half, and of the four women introduced by name, three of them are the wives and girlfriends of the major male players in the story.
 
At one point in the film Banksy is described as a modern day Robin Hood, and bells go off in my head. I suppose it is only fitting that under contemporary capitalism the title of a mythic character who robbed and killed in order to fight unjust authority and redistribute wealth is conveyed onto a mythic character that makes images of and gestures towards characters who rob and steal in order to fight unjust authority and redistribute wealth. But once again Banksy is one step ahead, and within minutes of the reference we see him showing Thierry boxes of counterfeit British pounds they’ve printed with Princess Diana on the bills instead of the Queen, intending to toss it off buildings in London’s financial district. Unfortunately it’s no longer the 1960s, and the gags of the Yippies play very differently in today’s world, so fear of long jail sentences lead Banksy to abandon the plan. And that’s the trouble with being an representation of Robin Hood instead of Robin Hood himself, in the past people have broken their leaders and heroes out of prison, but few people are willing to break you out of jail because you gestured towards social equality.
 
OK, back to the film. So we are introduced to Theirry as the guy that films EVERYTHING in his life, and get a glimpse at home movies, days at work, walks to the coffee shop, and the capturing of celebrities in Hollywood. His obsession with documenting is strange, but hardly uncommon these days. It turns out Terry’s cousin is the street artist Space Invader, and that link plugs him into the blooming street art scene, and he begins to follow around dozens of artists with his camera, most notably Shepard Fairey. Fairey is quite charming and compelling as the straight man to Theirry’s manic behavior. Quickly the object of obsession turns to the street artist’s themselves, and collecting tapes of them at work like a 12-year old collects comic books and baseball cards. Banksy becomes the X-Men #1 of Theirry’s tape stockpile, a mysterious figure he can’t seem to track down to complete his collection. When he finally meets and films Banksy, the inevitable question arises, “When are your going to turn this great footage of the street art scene into a movie?” His inability to do this leads to Banksy directing him to become a street artist himself, so that he’ll be pre-occupied and allow others to use the footage to make what will become Exit Through the Gift Shop. Theirry returns to LA and becomes Mr. Brain Wash (or MBW), a ridiculous figure that rents a huge studio and hires a 20 man team to produce artwork for him. MBW takes bits and pieces of all the styles of the artist’s he’s filmed and throws them in a blender with the last hundred years of pop culture, pouring out the most saccharine and disgusting smoothy of Warhol come Ron English come Fairey come Banksy. On pure hype and an immense influx of capital, MBW’s LA opening is a smashing success, with thousands of people attending and over a million dollars in sales the first night.
 
It’s hard not think the entire thing is a Banksy prank on the art collecting establishment, an intricate game of the Emperor Wears No Clothes. But it’s not simply the Emperor that appears naked. The artist, the regular Jane and Joe audience, the designers and installers that make the installation happen, the producers and promoters, they all have their junk hanging out. MBW’s caricature of the excesses of the recent street art collecting bubble throws up some funny moments of art world denizens doing mental calisthenics trying to justify their purchasing of clearly embarrassing pieces of art. Trouble is the laughs are thin since there is little shame to be had, who really cares about the art if it is all a financial investment anyway? Thankfully Banksy seems to know that the joke isn’t simply on the street art investing class but also on himself. Shepard Fairey on the other hand seems blissfully ignorant of the mirror that Terry as Frankenstein’s monster holds to his face.
 
Far-fetched, yes, but also pretty hilarious, and my retelling doesn’t do justice to the truly entertaining aspects of the film. My guess is there’s going to be a lot of questioning of whether Terry’s story is true, or simply another Banksy stunt. But really it doesn’t matter much, whether “real” or not, the questions the film raises are still important ones. Can we take on celebrity with more celebrities, spectacle with bigger spectacles, alienation with more alienation, capitalism with better capitalists?

AnarchismAnti-capitalismCulture & Media

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16 comments on “REVIEW: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Just to clarify, I didn’t call him ignorant. At the end of the film he clearly seems to feel that MBW’s success is ill-earned, yet there was simply no indication that he saw any reflection of himself in that very success.
I quite liked Fairey as a character in the film, his boyish charm and good will carried you through the movie in a way that Banksy’s hooded, voice-coded, shadow simply couldn’t.

“…art world denizens doing mental calisthenics trying to justify their purchasing of clearly embarrassing pieces of art.” This is spot on- but is def not limited to the street art scene- MBW is a valuable lesson in what happens when making art is confused with other things- like fame and money- but absolutely this is nothing new- the reason it may be so appalling is because MBW’s doing this via street art- a sometimes less pretentious venue that has recently and sadly suddenly become the slightly hard-to-stomach- scene. There are plenty of artists that have big egos- no big deal- but disrespecting the process of making the actual work is where many of these “artists” fail. If you fail there, the actual work will never be art- will never be beautiful. I take comfort in that- because at the end of the day, MBW’s work is not a real painting or piece of art- if you agree that real art is in the making.
Artists have become lazy- giving the world copies of copies, nothing hand made, things made by too many hands, things made out of crappy material, things made not because the artist needed to make them based on an inner need, but for some other reason.
Look at the actual work of anyone who does this and you will see that what you are looking at is not actual art. And with the risk of unintentionally rhyming, it will break your heart.

I love Mr Brainwash’s work. It may not stand up to Picasso or Leonardo da Vinci, but against the rest of the street art artists? Please! It easily holds its own. Its a mirror of us today, shallow, greedy, impatient poseurs! Get use to it, it ain’t going to go away none too soon….

You’re right Mr. Barnes, it does not stand up to picasso or da vinci- its not even in the same universe. But that kind of work seems archaic because of its purity these days. You clearly are not well versed in art, or street art because there are plenty of street artists that hand paint, hand print, hand draw, hand cut beautiful pieces and clearly have real talent. MBW is an expert on scanning images and having other people silkscreen them(does he even use the silkcreen? i’m not sure). A mirror will only show who/what is looking into it and a mirror is not the one who then judges what it sees, so if when you look into yours you see shallow greediness then perhaps go take a walk in a park and do some thinking about what it is you’d like to see instead.
If Banksy and Shep are behind this, if MBW is their brain child and they are using him to show whats wrong with not only the art world but art these days and all the gullible people eating up MBW’s work as something good and real, then they are absolutely right and perhaps even brilliant.

Lane, you sound like a frustrated street artist that not only missed the boat but no one will remember in 200 years time. Writing a book about it might bring you resolution.

Its too bad that’s all you can get out of what I wrote- because no where do I discuss being someone who missed the boat or being frustrated at my own level of success. I’m discussing important matters about art and beauty and authenticity here, and I wrote as someone who cares about art. Rest assured I am an artist satisfied with level of success reached thus far and can say with confidence I have the skills to back it up. I am in several books already, and I exhibit all the time. However since you conclude that making art should serve as a way to get on some sort of success boat, then you seem to be the target gullible audience for MBW and that makes perfect sense. You are part of the reason Shep and Banksy probably made this movie.

The ultimate irony of the Exit release is that Bansky and co. are hiring ex-oil attorneys to release their film. Not matter how “artistically integritous” he claims to be, still can’t enter the hollywood machine without paying a profiteer.

Hey Josh,
I love your review. I wish I could have read it earlier but was in end of semester crunch. The only question I have is about your last statement. Do you really think it doesn’t matter if Mr. Brainwash is real or not? I know there are various degrees of “reality” that he might inhabit, but it seems to me to matter whether Banksy and co. simply imagined a scenario that would perfectly demonstrate the paradoxes of street art in the speculative commodity-driven art market, or if an individual like Thierry actually fell into all those traps (or opportunities, i guess, depending on your perspective) of his own accord.
Also, I thought the morality tale of Thierry’s eventual betrayal of their principles indicates a real ambivalence about documentation (i.e. it was the documentarian that they trusted who ultimately manifested the worst case scenario of capitalist appropriation). Did you have any thoughts on that?

Finally saw the film and it was one of those rare one’s that keeps going even after one leave’s the theater—the real parts of it anyway, a collage of footage not shot by one Frenchman but by a flock of random camerapeople who may remain as anonymous as many of the street artists themselves. As for the other half of the film—about overnight street artiste “Mr. Brain Wash”—I was clued in to its prankumentary nature on several speculations:
1. The resemblance of Thierry Guetta to late 1970s punk promoter Claude Bessy, another French import to L.A. who, like the Guetta, was at “the right place at the right time” during the upswell of an underground movement. Could Guetta be directly based on Bessy?
2. If Space Invader’s face is being pixelated to hide his identity, wouldn’t it be a liability to reveal that he is Guetta’s cousin?
3. Guetta’s business of buying 1,000-lb. bales of clothing for $50 and reselling items at designer prices is a business model created by a store in Boston where Shepard Fairey’s OBEY t-shirts were first printed and sold. Could Fairey have come up with this detail for the development of Guetta’s character?
4. The 90-minute documentary film-within-the-film that Guetta allegedly produced from his footage is too slick to be the product of an unschooled filmmaker, and at the same too artful to warrant the dismissal that Banksy gives it in his own film.
5. Banksy speaks so generally ill of Guetta as the film goes on that for Guetta’s story to be real, the film would just be an utterly cruel dig at this one individual rather than the more plausable dig at the vulturous capitalist art economy, both as suggested by Josh in the above review and in the film’s title: Exit Through the Gift Shop.
There are more speculations out there about the hoaxy nature of MBW’s fake (though about as real as Fairey’s) art. I loved this film despite its slightly arrogant implications that street art was invented by a bunch of white boys sometime in the 1990s. Hopefully Exit Through the Gift Shop will inspire a new generation of new artists to create new political art intervention for all the right reasons.

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