REVIEW: Exit Through the Gift Shop [2010]

“Street art was poised to become the biggest countercultural movement since punk”

One of the final sentiments in mysterious street artist Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop is the most telling statement spoken in the entire film. Who is the joke on? It’s a question that unfortunately leads to the answer of everyone, but especially those who consider themselves artists. We all know how subjective our craft is; whether the work is accepted or not, though, good or bad, as long as it elicits a reaction, we like to think we did our job. It’s generally not about the fame, the money, or the notoriety; it’s about getting your message out, politically charged, emotionally charged, or merely aesthetically so. But when you see a man with no training, a man who stumbles into the very field he becomes a phenomenon in, and watch him excel to God-like stature despite having no trials or tribulations, it can be devastating. It can cause you to second guess what it’s all about. And that is why the elusive Brit decided to turn the cameras around from himself onto the eccentric Frechman filming him, Thierry Guetta.

An immigrant with a tragic past of leaving home after his mother’s death—an forgone conclusion kept hidden from him as the youngest child to save grief but in fact only exacerbated it as a result of the deception—Thierry owned a vintage clothing shop with a lucrative profit margin and roamed the streets of Los Angeles with a camcorder attached to his hand. With no plans or motivations, he merely filmed his life to keep tabs on those he loved, never letting monumental moments elude him again. It was the fortuitous fact his cousin was the up-and-coming, famed street artist Space Invader that finally gave him a semblance of focus. Thierry was now introduced into a world of secrets and danger, adding worth above personal attachment to his films. And he adored it—the life, the exhilaration, the friendships, and the constant approval/validation of his existence as a trusted accomplice to the art movement sweeping the world. Lying about a grand scheme to cull the footage into the definitive document of the style, the artists accepted him into their fraternity with hopes their story of subversion and message would come out, silencing the rumors of cash-grabs and criminal activity.

Even the now infamous Shepard Fairey—for his Obama screen print image that captivated the nation, but recognized also for his viral André the Giant OBEY stickers—let him in on the ground floor. He and Invader opened their arms to the child-like wonder of Thierry, loving his fearlessness to climb roofs and be side by side with them as they worked. Completely trustworthy—the guy sat through four hours of Mickey Mouse security interrogation, deleting evidence in front of their faces, to prove it—his friends miraculously granted him the opportunity to meet and follow his white whale, Banksy, when he came to LA. The giant enlisted Thierry’s help to find the best walls and get around town unfettered by the authorities. Showing things he never allowed himself to do with anyone else, Banksy let it all be filmed in the hopes it would eventually show his process and open the world to the worth of his art. With statements on the West Bank, thinly-veiled jabs at government in London, etc, the artist saw that the time was right for exposure and this Frenchman was the perfect person to bring it forth to the public. Except for the fact he was a complete and total fraud.

The reason Banksy is credited as director here is because he took the project over after seeing the final ADHD-infused cut of hyper-edited footage Thierry put together as a “film”. Dismissed as utter rubbish, the Englishman began wondering if the eccentric, brave soul he had befriended was actually a disturbed man on the long and winding road of delusional insanity. The disaster could still be saved and he thought he’d be the best to sort through the footage and take a stab himself, sending Thierry out to create art of his own—a ploy to have the tapes left behind and to keep him busy. What Banksy never could have expected was the egomaniacal descent of this man into thinking he was not only just a periphery player to the movement, but a crucial member to its evolution. Never to do anything half-assed, Thierry took his friend’s words to heart and decided to become the greatest street artist the world had seen, forming a studio Andy Warhol-style and enlisting other artists to manufacture the ideas in his head for the biggest extravaganza of graffiti ever. By appropriating everything he’d seen, leafing through art books for ‘inspiration’ and using Photoshop to add his own personal touches, Thierry was reborn as Mr. Brainwash, an overnight phenomenon who earned not one bit of the hype.

Bansky, Fairey, and the rest had helped create an unstoppable beast and unwittingly proved to the world that art was quite possibly rubbish. The work itself was worthless in comparison to the publicity and bullshit that went behind getting it out into the world. Simple supply and demand rules applied to make a no-name, self-created art God into being the focal point of the city’s art event of the year. A master of hiring the right people and using a blurb from a respected legend to grab national attention, Thierry became every artist’s worst nightmare—a hack more popular than those he ripped off. As a result, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a tragedy of the art world, everyone duped by its subject’s innocence and naivety masking ignorance to the true meaning of artistic merit. What began as a vehicle to show the masses an insight into the minds of one of contemporary art’s living legends, quickly ended up becoming a document of his glaring mistake. Banksy seems, if only by releasing this film, to take much of the blame for what happened with Thierry. The story is a travesty for anyone who works all hours and bleeds for his craft, but also a testament to the American Dream. Where else could a clothing store-owning immigrant become an instant success, commissioned to design the cover to Madonna’s Greatest Hits collection? Humanity’s idea of celebrity is off the rails.

Exit Through the Gift Shop 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

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