I don’t like silence. However, due to the shitty Internet connection in my room which has yet to allow me to finish watching even one episode on Netflix, I’ve resorted to playing and replaying some of the only downloaded videos I own as white noise in the background of my Hell Week cram sessions. Therefore, just this week alone, I’ve half-watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, a 2010 Oscar-nominated Banksy documentary, exactly 14.5 times.
This sideways glance at street artist Banksy and his radical cheek has left me with more questions than answers between the first viewing and the 14.5th viewing. I wonder now more than ever if the entire film is a hoax, especially since the primary subject of the film — Thierry Guetta, aka the street artist Mr. Brainwash — is an implausible cartoon of a Frenchman. If Banksy hired Guetta for the film to embody the metaphor of today’s overhyped commercialization of street art — of which Banksy himself is its greatest figurehead — then Exit Through the Gift Shop may just be the art world’s Inception.
Though the validity in this film is still in question for much of the public, Banksy is bewildered, saying “I could have never created a script this funny.” Perhaps, in this case, the truth is stranger than any fiction imagined, and whether Exit is real or not may not be so important. It certainly asks real questions about the way culture so quickly monetizes talent, about the value of authenticity, about the role of hype in obscuring even the shrewdest of judgments. Beyond the comically nuanced ironies of the plot, this is what Banksy wants the viewers to remember
And if what the stars of Exit — Banksy, Thierry Guetta and Shepherd Fairey — say is true and the documentary is genuine, then the film reads as The Emperor’s New Clothes of modern art. Considering the abomination that is Mr. Brainwash, a more apt comparison is to Frankenstein, with Banksy as the Victor Frankenstein to Mr. Brainwash’s The Monster. And truly you’ll see that Mr. Brainwash, the street art handle of Thierry Guetta, is a monster.
Once upon a time, Guetta owned a small, profitable vintage clothing store in L.A., living comfortably with his small children and wife. His obsession with film was conspicuous even then, as his camcorder became a permanent fixture of his right hand. But it got worse. Guetta, this fedora-wearing, middle-aged mustachioed tool, happens to be the cousin of the famous street artist, Invader, who creates mosaics of pixilated Space Invaders characters across the world. Guetta films Invader on all his nocturnal adventures as he tags buildings with his mosaics. It’s a pretty mutualistic relationship, despite the fact that Guetta’s obvious hero worship of his film subjects has often led me to wonder if these street artists are what’s getting Guetta off at night. It’s certainly not his wife, who at this point he has abandoned to travel the world with Invader and his crew. But the artists seem to keep him around — after all, street art has a short lifespan and Guetta’s filming provides a historical record of their ephemeral work.
Through Invader and the guise of creating a graffiti documentary, Guetta films and befriends a slew of important street artists, including Borf, Swoon, Seizer, Ron English, Azil, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Neckface, Dotmasters and Buffmonster. One of the most notable among them is Shepherd Fairey, the creator of the Obey clothing line and Obama’s “Hope” poster. It’s through Fairey that Guetta finally gets to Banksy. Considering Banksy’s secretive nature has left him fleeing the installation of every one of his works, Thierry proves crucial in filming the installation, defamation of and reactions to Banksy’s important pieces, such as the “Murdered Phone-box” in London. Guetta then gets to film Banksy’s “Barely Legal” L.A. show (most notable for the giant pink elephant in the room — literally, there was a painted pink elephant). It isn’t until Guetta nearly risks his entire career to maintain Banky’s anonymity when installing his Guantanamo Bay detainee doll in Disneyland that Banksy accepts Guetta as a confidante. But after years of hobnobbing with graffiti giants, Banksy must ask of Guetta: Where’s the film?
There’s nothing. Hundreds of thousands of hours of footage sits in a storage room unwatched by Guetta. The documentary he tries to make from the cobbled together footage is deemed “unwatchable” by Fairey and Banksy, and ultimately Bansky proclaims in Exit, “He was maybe just someone with mental problems who just happened to have a camera.” So when Banksy takes the footage in order to produce his own documentary (which becomes Exit), he begins to distract Guetta by telling him to do his own art show. Guetta then largely becomes the joke of his own gallery assistants and production employees in setting up his monstrously clichéd “Life is Beautiful” show for his street art alter ego, Mr. Brainwash. Nonetheless, the public eats it up. Mr. Brainwash, who has never done any work before, who has never been reviewed by any publication, who creates his hackneyed street art prints, such as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans turned into a spray can, for mere pennies, earns nearly a million in sales. He’s this huge, horrible success, and that is Banksy’s entire punch line.
More successful than the show, however, was this documentary in the eyes of the public and critics alike. Exit Through the Giftshop is a year-long venture funded solely by Banksy himself. In regard to the project, Fairey says, “This is a way for Banksy to tell his story but at the same time critique the street art phenomenon. It’s perfectly aligned with how he does things.” On his own film, Banksy is self-aware of his own self-awareness, of the way his commentary on the commercialization of street art might devalue his subsequent work. Still, he seems nonplussed, having written, “It seems fitting that the film questioning the art world was paid for by proceeds directly from the art world. Maybe it should’ve been called ‘Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You.’” And yet, Banksy’s works are still doing exceedingly well in auction, continually garnering five or more times the expected value. And so, maybe the joke wasn’t on Mr. Brainwash, maybe the joke’s on us for unfailingly buying into Banksy’s hype as he openly mocks us all for it in his film. If so, Banksy’s gotten to his third level and effectively completely the art world’s Inception.