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?
Exit Through the Gift Shop