SFF 2010: Exit Through the Gift Shop is a glorious mystery.
Exit through the Gift Shop is some kind of post-modern masterpiece. This is a magnificently entertaining, informative film filled with half-truths and practical jokes. The bulk of this review will be discussing aspects of the film that could be considered spoilers so you may want to come back and read this after you have seen the film. It won't really spoil anything so do read on if you want but I will be looking at moments in the film that happen late in the game so if you do want to see it untarnished then I will simply say to you, go see it! It's hilarious, fun and infuriatingly great! Very highly recommended!
Are you still with me? Either you have already seen the film or you don't really mind learning a bit more about it. To be honest there isn't really that much to spoil with this film. It's a rather straightforward piece of work but the implications it holds are fascinating. Exit Through the Gift Shop will come across as slightly frustrating to those who would want a clearer examination of street art history but really what can we expect from a serial prankster such as Banksy. As the film progresses away from a mere chronicle of street art and moves into the story of Thierry Guetta's ambition you will either go with it or get annoyed. I personally was transfixed as the film also started to examine notions of the inherent value of modern art.
Banksy's intention with this film initially seems to look almost like a simple expose of the vacuousness of modern art. As his own works began to sell for ridiculous amounts he started to question what defines the monetary worth of art itself. Is it all celebrity based? Are people just buying names to show as status symbols? The conclusions he reaches are cynically predictable.
Let's take the film completely on face value at first shall we? We'll assume it's a straight documentary and everything Banksy tells us in the film is actually how it is. There was a man called Thierry and he did follow certain street artists around with a camera for years. The film he made was ridiculous and Banksy took over while also nudging Thierry to make his own art. Banksy reveals that Thierry didn't actually 'create' much of the actual art himself. The question implied by the film is at what point does art become a commodity? Thierry seems more interested in generating 'product'. Using other artists to actually mass produce the work, Thierry still feels authorial control as he is directing the project.
What Banksy presents isn't completely unusual in the world of modern art. Matthew Barney is famous for hiring others to make many of his larger installations but he still directs all aspects of the production so could he be considered less of a sculptor than one who actually makes the pieces themselves? A film director doesn't undertake every aspect of a film themselves. The editor edits, the cinematographer shoots, the writer writes etc. Directing a film is a job that receives the highest of accolades but a great director seems to just surround themselves with other great artists and literally 'directs' them what to do. What does it say about the modern art world when a man who has never produced anything before creates a giant premiere exhibition comprised of works he sub-contracted others to create and then he sells those works for over a million dollars? All you need is some semi-derivative work, a few key quotes from others who have proved their worth and a lot of promotion. I think these are the key questions Banksy is directly asking through the film and if everything is taken on face value it is clear he doesn't think much of Guetta's work.
“Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless.”
Banksy (Exit Through the Gift Shop)
In and of itself that is already an immense set of questions to be asking especially coming from an artist such as Banksy who himself has made a lot of money from his work. But the film doesn't end there. Mystery and speculation hover around the film as the truth of what we are actually seeing has come into question. There are a myriad of theories about what is going on in this film from the absolutely crazy (Thierry actually is Banksy and he created this character to reveal the joke that is modern art) to the more likely (Thierry exists as a person to a degree but the final act of the film is all a prank. Banksy funded this art show and created Mr Brainwash as a giant practical joke to see if they could create a million dollar exhibition from nothing).
“I don’t know why, but I feel that everything that is happened in my life is happening for a reason,” he says. “I feel there has to be somebody above. Somebody above me, above you, above Banksy — above everybody — who is pulling me out of the shadows and into the light.”
Thierry Guetta quoted in Tom Shone's Times interview.
I personally cannot get past the latter theory as being incredibly probable. The truth in much of Thierry's history can be up for debate but certain questions remain. How did he get the money to pull this off? As his exhibition gets bigger and bigger we see his purpose built studio arise containing new silk screen printers, giant Xerox machines and immensely expensive installations like police cars, a robot made of television sets and a huge paint spray can that resembles Warhol's Campbell soup tins. This is brushed off with Thierry mentioning re-mortgaging his home and spending his life savings. We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars here. A bank approved all this liquid cash? For a crazy art exhibition?
“Sorry to brake up the party kids. But Mr Brainwash (MBW) is Banksy. I'm close with 1 of Banksys lawyers and he confirmed that the whole MBW thing is funded by Banksy. The thousands of dollars worth of props on the lawn, and inside were all paid for and transported on Banksys dime. The guy with the stash is a close friend of Banksy who agreed to pose as the fake artist. Its all to prove he doesnt have to use the brand Banksy.”
(Completely Anonymous uncredible post on random website)
So Banksy willingly gave a quote to promote a friend's exhibition that contained derivative work that ripped off countless different street artists working today? Shepard Fairey gave this intriguing quote to a critic who accused the film-makers of perpetuating a giant hoax,
“Has it ever crossed your mind that Thierry is possibly the least self-aware person on the planet? Banksy and I had to endorse him because he was holding our video footage hostage...still is to a degree.”
So Thierry was in effect blackmailing Banksy and Fairey to get the positive quotes used in promoting his exhibition? And still is to a degree? Then the whole film potentially is a subtle debunking of Guetta? Banksy created the film as a way to reveal Guetta as a charlatan. They certainly don't speak kindly of Guetta's work in the film, making several jokes about the worth of it. And remember, Banksy made it pretty clear in the film that Guetta makes very little of his art himself. This is an amusing idea that turns the film on its head. It then becomes merely a vindictive joke designed to get back at the dude blackmailing them and also attempt to control the footage that was being used to blackmail them.
Exit Through the Gift Shop morphs into post-modern documentary film making at its best. It could be an honest examination of a social movement and its transition into larger, more publicly acceptable art circles. It could be a complete fiction created as a giant practical joke on art culture and film itself. It could be a sly swipe at a guy who is being laughed at by the people he thinks he is blackmailing. Depending on how much you see as fake in this film you could come up with a lot more theories than that on what is going on.
“It's not 'Gone With The Wind'... but I think there's a moral in there somewhere.”
Whatever that moral may be I have a feeling Banksy and his friends are pissing themselves laughing at all the conjecture. It's OK, we can laugh too, they may be taking the piss out of us but they are also taking the piss out of themselves. After all, could anyone ever have expected a Banksy film to have been anything other than a “Banksy” film? I for one am pretty damn amazed by this piece of work. I can't imagine Banksy doing much else in film after this. He is a gifted joker playing around in various artistic mediums and I cannot wait to see what he does next.