Exit Through the Gift Shop

 Exit Through the Gift Shop is now available on dvd in the UK and Canada with a US release date of 12/14.  It has also been short listed as a possible Oscar nominated documentary for 2010.

On a recent trip to Toronto (see articles – Travelogue: Toronto), I saw the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as a documentary and “The world’s first Street Art Disaster Film”.

Bansky, Exit Through the Gift Shop

Bansky, Exit Through the Gift Shop

My first thoughts after seeing the film was how unexpectedly entertaining it was.  It was also refreshing to see how simple, direct, cheap and effective Street Art is as an art form.   It’s a far cry from being simple graffiti or public vandalism.  It has become an effective vehicle for certain savvy artists to get their images – and message – directly in front of large, public audiences while circumventing the gallery/museum machinery.

An obvious message  from the film is how highly commercialized the art world has become.  (The title is the dead-give-away referring to the signage used at museums exhibiting large block-buster art spectacles with souvenirs marketed to the public like Happy Meals.)  Art and money – an eternal necessary evil, I suppose.  Be that as it may, contemporary art as commodity turns out to be one of the major themes deftly skewered in this film.

It is purportedly a documentary about the street art movement and purportedly made by premiere UK street artist, Banksy.  I say this because some believe this film is, in fact, another artistic prank perpetrated by Banksy on the unsuspecting public.  Whatever the truth is, it really doesn’t matter.  It’s informative, provocative and entertaining on many different levels.  So, if we are being “punked” by Banksy – that’s just fine with me.  I hope as many people see this film as possible.  It sheds light on the mysterious world of the street artist and also pokes fun at how dysfunctional art presentation and distribution actually can be.  It begins with Banksy sitting hooded and silhouetted as he explains how the film was started and how it’s trajectory changed dramatically along the way.  (continued in Film / Media)

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Exit Through the Gift Shop cont’d.

He explains how the film came to be and talks about meeting the unlikely videographer, Thierry Guetta, who shot much of the footage of the street artists we see in the film over a period of eight years.

Banksy, http://www.banksy.co.uk

Banksy, http://www.banksy.co.uk

Not surprisingly, Banksy was looking for someone to document his ephemeral works.  Through other street artist contacts such as Shepard Fairey, he met Guetta who taped his artistic activities and helped him navigate the terrain during his first visit to L.A. It turns out that Guetta was a huge Banksy fan – who, by then, was very well-known as one of the best street artists in the world.   So for Thierry, this was a dream come true.  Banksy had been anonymously creating street art in the UK and progressively internationally since the late ’80′s / early ’90′s.  What separated his works from simple urban graffiti and other street art was that his works were visually compact political and/or social statements that were usually stenciled onto buildings, underpasses, bridges, etc.  He targeted social inequities, disproportionate hierarchies of power and excesses in consumerism.  His pieces were and are often clever, amusing and very accessible.  They play directly to the sensibilities of the everyday passerby.

In addition to being a great street artist, Banksy is also a first rate provocateur poking fun at the pretentiousness and superficialities of consumerism, politics, and the institutionalized

Banksy, Chimps in Parliament

Banksy, Chimps in Parliament

contemporary arts world.  One of his better known pranks was the surreptitious placement of his own pieces on the walls of major museums and galleries in London and New York.  He said, “To actually (have to) go through the process of having a painting selected must be quite boring.  It’s a lot more fun to go and put your own one up.”  To their credit, the British Museum added the piece he mounted in their galleries to their collection.  Out of necessity, he has remained anonymous.  After all he, and the others who practice this craft, are considered vandals in the eyes of the law.

But he has also parlayed this anonymity into a legendary mystique which has only added more of a cache to his work.

Banksy, website, http://www.banksy.co.uk, under Shop

Banksy, website, http://www.banksy.co.uk, under Shop

Though he likes to poke fun at the art world with a rather large pointy stick, he has also benefitted greatly from their interest in his works which are now sold for hundreds of thousand of dollars – which is something he also makes fun of.

So for Thierry Guetta, someone who had been documenting many street artists around the world, meeting Banksy was akin to winning the lottery.   Little would Bansky know that this would be a true collision of two very different perceptions of reality.  Banksy encouraged Thierry to begin putting his footage together for his documentary.  What resulted was an incomprehensible visual disaster called, Life Remote Control. In Exit, Bansky says of this mess, “I didn’t know if I believed he was a filmmaker or a mental patient.”   It was very clear that Thierry was not capable of putting a coherent film together.  So, Banksy suggested that Thierry hand his footage over to him to work on and encouraged him to create his own street art and launch his own show while Bansky and friends did the editing.  What

Banksy, http://www.banksy.co.uk

Banksy, http://www.banksy.co.uk

followed this well meaning reversal of roles provided a very different and unexpected sharp turn in direction for the second half of the film.

That would be the improbable story of Thierry Guetta’s adventures as a newly “minted” street artist called Mr. Brainwash and the monster art show, Life is Beautiful, he organized in L.A. in a former CBS studio warehouse where he eventually sold $1,000, 000 worth of derivative pop art works to a large number of people who believed he was an important artist.  While Banksy’s small team of editors lost their minds combing through hundreds of hours of his tapes to find a few usable seconds of footage, Mr. Brainwash mortgaged his house to create his monster art show which consisted of hundreds of works resembling other artists’ styles including Warhol, Bansky, Shepard Fairey, etc.  As you watch the film, it does not seem to occur to Mr. Brainwash that he is doing anything wrong – just creating his art.  And, because he had helped Banksy and Shepard Fairey in the past, they both helped him with this show and gave him some endorsement quotes – which he exploited to the hilt.  Banksy’s endorsement, a razor-sharp, double-edged sword comment, was posted on Shepard Fairey’s blog, obeygiant.com.  It reads as follows:

“Mr. Brainwash or MBW is the moniker of an eccentric French filmmaker.

MBW has spent the last nine years attempting to make the ultimate documentary about graffiti art. But whilst filming many of the world’s most renowned street artists at work MBW began putting his camera aside and making art of his own. He has graduated from a few hand drawn stickers to giant billboard sized paste-ups, eventually becoming one of the most prolific street artists in California.

MBW does not fit the stereotype of your average street vandal. His artistic process chiefly consists of throwing random modern cultural icons into a blender and turning it up to eleven. The results are by turns profound, provocative and inspirational.

“Life is beautiful” is the first exhibition ever mounted by Mr Brainwash. It takes place in a former Hollywood studio complex and will feature over three hundred paintings, sculptures and prints alongside an installation made from 100,000 shoes and a life-size re-creation of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.

“Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
– Banksy”

The inexplicable success of Mr. Brainwash’s show is the obvious point of the second half of the film.  BanksyBansky says, “I don’t know what it means.  Maybe Thierry was a genius all along, maybe he got a bit lucky.  Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.”

There is speculation all over the web about whether Mr. Brainwash is a creation of both Banksy and Shepard Fairey to use as a vehicle to pull off another prank but I’m not sure that’s the case here.  They did help him with his show but the person that is Thierry Guetta seems to be very tough to control.  Let’s just say he appears to have the attention span of a child – and I don’t mean that in a good way.  And it doesn’t really matter because the point is made – if you know how to promote something well enough you can get people to buy it no matter if it is a pile of crap or not.

Near the end of the film, in full silhouette, Bansky says he used to think it would be great if everyone created art.   He adds, “I don’t say that so much now.”

I think this is a good thing.

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