There is something wonderful about the street artists’ way. They toil under cover of night or in their own studios surrounded by spray paint cans. They create works that may or may not stand the test of time but that still capture our attention. For creatures like us, who live within the media marketplace, street art is visceral, thrilling, and subversive. Instead of art made for money, it’s art for art’s sake. As narrator Rhys Ifans intones in the hilarious documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, street art is also “poised to become the biggest countercultural movement since punk.”
One of the best sequences in this very funny film is a montage set to Richard Hawley’s “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” showing the lengths these artists go to create their art: donning gas masks and blow torches, outrunning the cops in a nimble display of almost parkour-like skill, tagging subway cars en masse. Your spirit soars at the spectacle: Fight the power, dudes.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is many things: a street art documentary, a conceptual art stunt, a character study, an urban farce, and a cautionary tale about what happens when anarchy intersects with the marketplace. Directed by the notoriously clever, secretive British street artist and snarketeer Banksy, its subject is ostensibly a mildly loony Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, who decides, after a career as a vintage clothing merchant, to remake himself as a documentary filmmaker. It doesn’t hurt that Thierry is an obsessive who never seems to set his camera down unless he’s asleep.
Willful and enthusiastic, Thierry happily abandons his wife and small children on many occasions to live his dream of documenting the best of the world’s culture jammers. He begins with his cousin Space Invader, who turns him on to street art, and, scaling even greater heights, is soon filming Swoon, Shepard Fairey, and the really big game, Banksy. As Thierry records their global wheat-pasting and flights from the cops, it becomes more and more unclear if what he is recording is for posterity or maybe just himself. The videotapes begin piling up in his L.A. home, boxes and boxes of them. For a time it looks as if Thierry’s “documentary” is as ethereal and vaporous as graffiti art — and more about the act of filming than about creating a marketable commodity.
But in this case, Banksy wants that marketable commodity (or at least some recognition for the legions of street artists Thierry has filmed). Exit illustrates a conundrum of the street art world: These artists may not live and die by the dollar, but they crave recognition even while fiercely protecting the anonymity that allows them to create their work unencumbered. When Thierry finally shows Banksy his documentary, the street artist is appalled. It’s a mess. Banksy’s remedy: commandeer the film away from Thierry.
But Thierry pulls a switcheroo of his own, deciding to launch his own career as a street artist, dubbing himself Mr. Brainwash. Thierry transforms himself from a lovable goof into an art monster creating highly derivative works for a blockbuster L.A. art show. The film shows a tension between the street artists who exist willfully and defiantly outside of the gallery and Thierry, clamoring desperately for inclusion.
Maintaining his anonymity, Banksy is shown on screen shrouded in a hoodie and dark shadows, existing as a kind of absurdity barometer and bullshit detector who takes stock of Mr. Brainwash’s fall down fame’s rabbit hole and chuckles with glee at the spectacle.
Some have suggested that Exit Through the Gift Shop is another stunt, which is not surprising, considering Banksy’s own punk-rock modus operandi. Over the course of a two decades-long art career, Banksy has inserted rude graphics and lyrics into Paris Hilton CDs and returned them to stores, placed his own tongue-in-cheek paintings in ornate frames in the Museum of Modern Art, and undercut the oppressive West Bank wall separating Palestinians and Israelis by stenciling it with artwork, including an image of a little girl holding balloons and soaring over the barrier. Banksy is a conceptual and witty street artist who uses his work for political and social commentary. And Thierry may or may not be his latest vehicle for critique, a puppet or invention created to make a point.
Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a don’t-miss high-octane entertainment for anyone interested in street art or the art world and an uproariously funny assertion that despite the subversive, contrary nature of street art, the market will often assert its bad self in the end.
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