Punk and consumerism have always had an uneasy relationship. What happens when punk rockers become successful – when the iconoclastic become icons? Do they revolt against themselves? Does punk’s easy admission into the mainstream mean that punk is merely a form of consumerism – a consumerism that succeeds at making you feel like you are not consumeristic. Case in point: Urban Outfitters.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is about punk art, so to speak – the street art movement that sprang up in the 1980s and 90s and turned graffiti into a conceptual art practice. Street artists mixed traditional graffiti form – the repetition and personal insignia of tagging – with political and social commentary, often achieved by inserting ironic or provocative words, phrases, and images in out-of-place contexts. One famous example is the British artist Banksy’s silhouette drawing of a little girl holding balloons painted on the wall partitioning Jerusalem, making it look like she is floating – or trying to float – over the community-dividing wall. Then there is Shephard Fairey’s “Obey” series: the ominous face of Andre the Giant staring out at passers by with the simple phrase “Obey” printed in bold letters below.
This is some of the most satisfying kind of street art. It is provocative and anti-authoritarian without being overly anarchistic. It pushes art into the public realm in an unprecedented way and transforms an unthinking walk down the street into a confrontation with social criticism. It is art-for-all without compromise.
On the surface, Exit Through the Gift Shop – a film made by Banksy, we are told – is a documentary about street art. It draws from video footage shot over a ten year period by an odd French man living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta. Thierry has an obsession with shooting video, and since the 1980s he has lived with a running video camera in his hand, documenting everything in his life. Thierry became fascinated with street art when he visitsed his cousin in Paris, who happens to be a well-known street artist using the moniker “Space Invader.” Thierry follows his cousin on his middle-of- the-night graffiti expeditions, and when he returns to L.A. he continues following around street artists – in L.A. and eventually throughout the world – amassing the largest collection of street art images known and capturing the world’s most prominent street artists at work. He accumulates tapes and tapes of footage, telling his subjects that he is working on a documentary film. The only catch is there is no film.
The one artist Thierry hasn’t met is the notoriously elusive Banksy. When he finally does connect with Banksy, the famed street artist is taken in by the odd Frenchman, who seems to be willing to follow him into any situation no matter how physically or legally dangerous. Banksy lets Thierry into his secretive world and encourages the videographer to finally make his film. When Thierry does, Banksy describes the product as unwatchable. But Thierry has documented more street art than anyone else, and since the art is one of the most temporal visual art forms (erased by zealous graffiti wipe-out-ers), Banksy decides to make the film himself. He tells Thierry to turn his attention to making art.
And here is where Exit Through the Gift Shop takes a bizarre turn. Thierry returns to L.A., changes his name to Mr. Brainwash (or MBV), and begins planning a massive art exhibition of the most derivative, insidious, faux-pop art works you have seen. Only MBV’s exhibition is an incredible success, landing him millions of dollars in sales and a commission to design a Madonna album cover, and raising many questions about the value of art and the legitimacy of the art world.
In the end, Exit Through the Gift Shop leaves us with two documentaries: one about street art and one about the celebrity, hype, and bastardization of the art world. At the end of the film, many of the street artists who encouraged Thierry to become MBV, revoke their support, claiming to be embarrassed that such a hack could fool art collectors into buying poor works of art just because he had their endorsement. Thierry emerges as a street art Frankenstein, an artist whose value rests only in his status as a celebrity artist. In fact, MBV manages to launch a career in which his artistic status emerges concurrently – or even before – his first work of art is ever created.
Documentary one – the street art portion – is fascinating enough, and it helps justify the form’s legitimacy. But the second documentary in Exit Through the Gift Shop is an altogether more complicated thing. It forces you to question the value of art and the status of taste. When the form of displaying art becomes the art itself, is it the personality of MBV that is the art – or is art even possible in this context?
This question points to a final twist in the film that occurred after I saw the movie and started looking more into Banksy’s work. There is speculation that Exit Through the Gift Shop isn’t a documentary at all, but rather an elaborate Banksy art prank in which MBV is created as street art phenomenon in order to prove that Banksy can create an art world celebrity. You are left wondering if you’ve been punked by the film’s false reality, a feeling that reveals street art’s unpleasant underside – its willingness to provoke and manipulate audiences in the name of anarchic hypocrisy slaying: never trust authority, never trust reality. But then again, the presence of this doubt seems the only way a good movie about street art could succeed. Maybe the narrative of Exit Through the Gift Shop is true and maybe it isn’t. It is that unsettling doubt that mimics the experience of coming upon one of Banksy’s works in the street. And so maybe the rumors that the film is false is just a Banksy epilogue, a way of making us unable to ever feel like we have consumed the true story of street art – a way to force us to continue to question what we are told is reality.
Image: Banksy appearing in Exit Through The Gift Shop in Disguise