Directed by the famously anonymous Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about the risk-taking, law-breaking, and frenzy-instilling nature of street art. The film starts with footage captured by Thierry Guetta, a ‘camera-happy Frenchman’ obsessed with filming everything, especially the graffiti artists of Los Angeles. Interspersed with interviews with Guetta himself, we see how he became swept up in the adrenaline-inducing art of vandalism and addicted to the thrill of branding the city in the dead of night.
It appears Guetta was in the right place at the right time when given the chance to video Banksy himself during a project in LA. While Banksy only let him film his hands, Guetta’s footage provides the most intimate view into his process yet – quite the oxymoron considering Banksy’s desire for absolute obscurity.
Everything begins to change for Guetta when Banksy takes over his documentary project, turning the camera onto Guetta and encouraging him to make his own artwork. And so, ‘Mr. Brainwash’ was born. Under this new pseudonym, Guetta bought a huge studio space and hired a Hirst-eseque army of artists to bring his ideas to life. His first spectacular show – Life is Beautiful – was a massive success against all odds. The documentary ends with a short montage of artists commenting on Guetta’s short but colossal rise to fame which, to their annoyance, they had helped to create.
Exit Through the Gift Shop was first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Utah, on 24 January 2010. In the lead up to the premiere, Banksy sprayed five works over the city. The pièce de résistance was a dishevelled minibus, installed just outside the movie theatre. It featured a stencilled rat (an instantly recognisable Banksy icon) and the lyrics to Richard Hawley’s Tonight the Streets Are Ours, the theme-tune of the documentary. Celebrity picturegoers were handed cans of spray-paint and encouraged to leave their mark on the walkway.
Likewise, the UK premiere was staged in a makeshift theatre in the Leake Street Tunnel at Waterloo, a popular graffiti destination. Viewers were again handed spray-cans and invited to engage in the illicit activity of street art. Without doing anything himself, Banksy blurred the line between spectator, artist, and vandal.
In the first half-hour of the film alone, Guetta’s footage offers a glimpse into the livelihood of some of the most prolific street artists. By persuading them he was filming a documentary about their art, Guetta was able to follow them on their hit-and-run assaults on the city. The catalyst to his obsession was when Guetta filmed his cousin, Invader, who was installing ceramic tiles of video game characters across LA. Through Invader, Guetta was introduced to some of the city’s other infamous artists: Monsieur André, Zeus, Borf and Ron English among their ranks.
The footage reveals, however, that the world of street art is a far cry from the upmarket realm of ‘fine art’ galleries and auction houses. The treacherous underbelly of street art is captured in true time, and run-ins with the police show just how undesirable their art was in its early years.
Guetta also spends a good deal of time following Shepard Fairey, the artist who founded streetwear brand OBEY after his illegally pasted Andre the Giant Has a Posse campaign riveted LA. Fairey now has an estimated net worth of $10 million. It is both ludicrous and impressive that these creators, once run down by the law for their criminal activity, could rise to such celebrity status and shape popular culture. But isn’t that the culture which street art satirises the most? The fact that you can now wear a T-shirt with Andre the Giant as a logo is testament to what Guetta saw as the brainwashing effect of these artists.
Just like any Banksy stencil that appears overnight, Exit Through the Gift Shop created an immediate buzz. The film was so popular that it was nominated for the ‘Best Documentary’ Oscar at the 2010 Academy Awards. Soon the question arose: if Banksy won the title, how would he receive his award?
The monkey mask that sits behind the evasive artist throughout the documentary might have been the perfect masquerade for the evening, much to the disdain of the Academy. Alas, Banksy was not to win his Oscar, but the stir he caused during the runup to award season captured the very essence of his art: shocking, disruptive, and railing against the system.
This is one of Banksy’s last remarks about Mr. Brainwash, yet it seems he could be talking about himself. Of course, the way that the public latched onto his art involved a certain degree of luck, but it is Banksy’s flare for poking fun at authority which catapulted him into the spotlight.
The documentary’s greatest critique is of art itself. Exit Through the Gift Shop makes you question what is serious and what is spoof. Through the wry humour that underscores the documentary we see how absurd it is that fame in the artworld, and all the wealth that comes with it, can be born overnight. After all, if Thierry Guetta could do it, anyone can. Banksy insists that street art was never about the money, but the frenzy around his name created by enthusiasts, dealers and art institutions alike has made Banksy a name that will continue to dominate the artworld. Banksy may have shown us that art is a joke, but art-buyers continue to pay a pretty penny for the punchline.