Fools like me who avoided the hype about secretive street artist Banksy's directorial debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop, in an effort to guarantee an unspoiled viewing experience should be prepared for the old "bait and switch." While I knew the film was billed as a documentary about Banksy that ended up focusing more on the filmmaker than the subject, I still believed I'd get some insight into the life of the international artist of mystery, or at least a clue about his real name. (This is the part where I tell you to stop reading if you don't like spoilers). Instead, the film focused more on a battery of other artists, providing a partial history of the most dangerous, controversial, and illegal genre of art.
Top-selling artists Shepard Fairey and Mr. Brainwash are two main characters, and Banksy's masked, voice-modulated interviews serve as eye-witness accounts of recent events that turned the art world inside out. Frankly, I was miffed. I've seen plenty of Shepard Fairey interviews, and when the film spent much of its first half hour featuring Fairey photocopying his art at Kinko's, and lurking under billboards wheat-pasting his pervasive Obey posters, I felt a hoax coming on. Enter Mr. Brainwash.
Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, became obsessed with street art after being introduced to it by his cousin, the artist known as Invader. Through Invader, Guetta met Fairey, then more artists, and began following them around with his video camera. In the past, street art was not often documented because capturing it in action requires death-defying climbs and a high risk of police chases (not easily navigable when you're carrying a camera and lights). But Guetta was fearless and even became skilled as Fairey's lookout. His fascination grew, and he filled dozens of boxes with tapes equivalent to contemporary art documentary gold -- world-famous, underground street artists caught on camera. The artists expected him to make a film, but he needed one more subject to complete the roster -- his seemingly unreachable goal to shadow the infamously elusive Banksy became a reality when the artist visited L.A. and needed a hand with some outdoor projects -- Fairey hooked them up, and that's when all hell broke loose.
Banksy created a monster. After developing a friendship with Guetta and allowing himself to be filmed for several years, Banksy realized Guetta wasn't capable of making a comprehensible film with his priceless footage. So Banksy asked him to turn over the tapes and focus on having an art show of his own instead -- Guetta had gotten the bug and dabbled in some self-portrait street art. He took Banksy's encouragement and ran with it, hiring a crew and setting out to make a huge, Banksy-style exhibition. He chose Mr. Brainwash as his pseudonym because his documentation of street artists caused him to believe that art is all about brainwashing the public. In a sense, he was right. In every sense, brainwashing is exactly what he did. Taking appropriation to an unsettling level, his show was a hot mess of contemporary influences, but his strategic marketing convinced patrons that his very first pieces of art should sell for tens of thousands of dollars. He sold a million dollars "worth" of art at his first show, Life is Beautiful in 2008, which Banksy helped promote with the following quote: "Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he's a phenomenon. And I don't mean that in a good way." Exit Through the Gift Shop uncovers the story behind those sharp words.
Some viewers have speculated that Banksy and Brainwash are the same person. Guetta even hints at that possibility in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Whether or not the film is another deceptive stunt by Banksy doesn't really matter. For me, it ended up being an entertaining, valiant investigation of a counterculture movement that has infiltrated snooty auction houses and galleries worldwide. I began to wonder why I even cared about Banksy's identity in the first place. And then I realized he's a celebrity just like any other, and I might like him better if I discovered some juicy gossip about him. Maybe if he had kids with names like Apple and Sparrow and a rock star wife, I might find him even more (or less) interesting (I did notice a wedding band on his finger in one shot). But that's not the point of his film. The point is to see how easily we can be fooled by hype, and to recognize street art's widespread influence. As far as what Mr. Brainwash's overnight success based on a load of crappy art means to the art world, Banksy himself said it best in a deep, gravelly, robot voice, "Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke."