Directed by: Banksy
‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ asks several questions, some of which are elephant in the room obvious, like – What is art? But what I think this documentary does rather cleverly is illustrate the fine line between enthusiasm and obsession. It also is a ruse of sorts, whereby we are supposed to believe that an ambitious French entrepreneur who has made a living selling thrift shop clothes to hipsters for extortionate prices wouldn’t be able to see art to idiots with more money than sense.
Thierry Guetta is a man who documents everything in his life after a childhood tragedy. He discovers street art after a return to his native France. His cousin, who goes by the alias Invader, gives him access to the scene, which usually doesn’t take too kindly to being recorded for obvious legal reasons. Guetta proves himself to be a useful lookout, and soon gains the trust of other notable street artists.
In the documentary, put together from Guetta’s exhaustive collection of footage, Guetta discovers the work of Banksy, a mysterious albeit world famous street artist who was, and perhaps still is, creating an amazing amount of buzz. Like an ornithologist in pursuit of that never seen before rare bird, Guetta is eager to catch a glimpse of the elusive Banksy, who actually doesn’t turn out to be too difficult to track down. What follows is an interesting documentary that in itself could be viewed as a work of art, after all even more than most documentary’s it seems to be entirely fabricated. Banksy meets Guetta, learns to trust him, even going as far as installing an protest piece next to a ride at Disneyland with the Frenchman, but somehow he ends up creating a monster as Guetta, inspired by the guerrilla Punk DIY aesthetic of street art, decides to create his own street art. Thinking if they can do it, why can’t I? Initially Guetta follows the blueprint of his cousin’s work and also the American artist Shepard Fairey, with easy to reproduce images of his own image clutching a camera.
What ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ proves is that this post Koons, Emin, Hirst art world is entirely superficial. Guetta builds a Warhol-like factory, assembling a production team of ambitious yet naïve art students and unemployed graphic designers like Damien Hirst did who will work for peanuts under a mad misdirected dictator, and the Guetta factory churns out a host of screen-prints that look like the kind of garbage you’d get on front of t-shirt from New Look. He further dilutes Banksy’s own once rebellious breach of copyright imagery. Like most things, be it hip hop or heroin, street art came from the street and went commercial. Guetta proves just how empty and soulless art can be.
One of the more interesting artists in the documentary is Shepard Fairey, who was once quoted as saying “The real message behind most of my work is ‘question everything’.” (cheers Wikipedia), and it fits with this film, it is not to be taken at face value, and anyone he does so is probably a fool, but as ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ shows, there are a lot of fools and most of them seem to live in LA. Fairey’s infamous and deliberately meaningless ‘The Obey Giant’ represents the wider point in the film, that is, post-modern art is almost entirely meaningless, however it can encourage people to get in touch with the true essence of art, that is, it is up to you to attribute meaning.
Essentially this all falls back to a well-known quote which itself has been stolen and revised over the years, Tennyson said “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”, T. S. Eliot trotted out something similar and Picasso allegedly proclaimed “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”, whoever said it first, the sentiment remains strong, Banksy even plays with it. Stealing Guetta’s documentary idea, which was presented to him as a muddled, incoherent mess and turning it into ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’.
Guetta is a magnetic presence throughout the documentary, he was born to be filmed, egotistical, quirky and lacking self-awareness; what he brings to the film is curiosity and innocence. The mischievous spirit of ‘Exit Through the Gft Shop’ is a street spirit, one which has possessed graffiti artists throughout the world. There is a sneaky desire to be provocative, and that should always be encouraged.