Exit Through the Gift Shop is a marvelous, one-of-a-kind contraption, a joyfully spinning top of a movie that keeps zigging and zagging and taking the audience right along with it. It’s easily the cream of this month’s crop of movies, though it’s so tricky and layered that before I saw it, everything I’d heard about it made it sound a little…complicated. Maybe even intimidating. Not to worry: For all its through-the-looking-glass playfulness, it is really, at heart, a vividly direct and witty and biting look at the world of contemporary street art.
A lot of the kick of the movie is that the art itself is so much damn fun. There have been rumors, from the outset, that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fake, a very crafty put-on documentary. I actually think that something quite the opposite is true; it’s more genuine than it knows. The movie is billed as “a Banksy film,” which implies that Banksy, the hit-and-run virtuoso of underground British street art (he’s one of the movie’s prime subjects), directed it, or at the very least that he’s pulling the strings. But such is the magic of Exit Through the Gift Shop that the movie’s ultimate what is art? joke comes almost directly at Banksy’s expense. And it’s not even clear that he’s fully aware of the joke’s ramifications.
Much of the giddy high of street art is that it’s so toyish and graphically simple and childlike and accessible. The film’s central figure, Thierry Guetta (pictured at left), is a French-born Los Angeles boutique owner who, in the late 1990s, becomes obsessed with videotaping street artists in the act of putting up their guerrilla installations. It’s through Guetta, who as many have noted resembles a Gallic hipster- bourgeois Ron Jeremy, that we come to know such prominent street artists as Guetta’s cousin, who goes by the nom de plume Space Invader, or Shepard Fairey, the young man who later became famous for his Obama “Hope” poster, and who is here represented by what was (until then) his most celebrated and relentlessly repeated image: a faux-fascist print of a scowling face (it’s taken from a shot of Andre the Giant) underscored by the word “OBEY.” Fairey plastered this image everywhere he could — on walls, curbsides, billboards — and its message, though somewhat free-floating, would seem to be this: We’re living in a media society that, though politically free, has a fascist spirit, a world that keeps giving us orders through images.
This kind of mock-didactic message-mongering is a hallmark of the new wave of street art, and in many ways its godmother is the artist Barbara Kruger, who in the early ’90s featured cut-out Big Brother slogans (I Shop Therefore I Am, Your Body Is a Battleground) imposed, with maximum irony, on top of iconic photographs. If Kruger is the muse of the Shepard Fairey generation, the other ancestral art god who hovers over Exit Through the Gift Shop is Claes Oldenburg, the celebrated Swedish museum prankster known for his giant sculptures of badminton birdies, cigarette butts, and what have you. Banksy takes a major page from Oldenburg when he deposits a beautifully wrecked London telephone booth on the street. This is “art” as Candid Camera — it’s really all about seeing what passersby will do — and Banksy then ups the ante by depositing a dummy version of a Guantanamo-prisoner-in-orange-jumpsuit right into the middle of Disneyland. The sheer danger of staging this stunt feeds right into the Banksy mystique. He’s the artist as hooded outlaw, seen only in tabloid-TV silhouette, an invisible man too fatally cool to emerge from the shadows.
Is his art political? Yes, indeed. But sort of the way that the hippies were political. I loved the rascally audacity of Banksy’s creations, but at the same time, there’s a naive undercurrent to the implication that the street art we’re seeing in Exit Through the Gift Shop is somehow “subversive.” And where that naiveté truly comes into focus is in the second half of the film, when Thierry Guetta decides to become an artist himself. Taking a page from Banksy, who had already crossed over into the world of expensively chic high-end gallery shows, Guetta rents out a Los Angeles warehouse and mounts his own outrageous grab bag of an art show.
Calling himself Mr. Brainwash, he shamelessly appropriates ideas from all the street artists he’s chronicled, and he also rips off, flagrantly and openly, Andy Warhol. But it’s not just that he “lifts” some of Warhol’s most famous images — like the Marilyn Monroe silkscreens (only now with the face of Michael Jackson, and other celebrities, grafted onto Monroe’s glowing blond sex halo). In a strange way, he does to Warhol what Warhol did to the straight art world. Guetta’s most ingenious creation is an eight-foot-tall spray can of Campbell’s tomato soup — that spray can being, in effect, a vehicle for mass-producing Warhol’s most famously mass-produced image of mass-production-as-art. Would Warhol himself, if he saw that spray can (or those Michael Monroes), turn over in his grave? Or would he laugh at the pop-art-is-dead/long-live-pop-art spectacular awfulness of it?
One thing is for sure: As you watch Exit Through the Gift Shop, the movie — which is to say, Banksy — encourages you to look down your nose at Thierry Guetta, to see him as a huckster vulgarian who represents the end of art. And he is. But unless I’m seriously missing something, what Banksy doesn’t seem to realize is that he’s precisely the wrong messenger for that condemnation. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Thierry Guetta is supposed to represent the ultimate commodification of street art, but what he really represents is the playful, happily brainwashed, do-what-you-dare fulfillment of it. He outdoes Banksy at his own game by taking him all the way to the bank.