Sunday, April 29, 2012

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The last art documentary I watched, Amir Bar-Lev’s ‘My Kid Could Paint That’, started out as one thing (a chronicle of the impact a four-year-old girl’s canvases had on the art world) and turned into something else (an investigation into the authenticity of her work). Ditto Banksy’s ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, except that instead of a precocious four-year-old we have a frankly bonkers French guy.

Before we go any further, a word about Banksy. His identity is shrouded in secrecy, mainly because the public dissemination of his work is done in such a manner as to invite calls from the Old Bill and appearances before the beak. The phrase “art terrorist” is perhaps overused, with anyone whose aesthetic is informed by anti-authoritarianism laying claim to the epithet, but Banksy is the real deal. An art terrorist – in a good way.

At the basest level, the guy’s a graffiti artist. But with style. Irreverent, subversive, often darkly comical, his work is iconic in the proper sense of the word. And you have to give kudos to a man who tagged the West Bank with images of children borne by balloons floating over the wall or the wall itself shattered to reveal idyllic vistas. Oh, and his picture of the two gay cops … still makes me snigger every time I see a policeman stomping around like he’s some authentic James Ellroy badass.

So. Banksy: artist, activist, provocateur, enigma. And – this is my impression, at least – a world-class piss-taker. Again, in a good way. So I’m inclined to view ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ as an elaborate, deadpan, beautifully constructed hoax, the work of a dementedly inspired parodist with a spray-can in one hand and a megaphone in the other, a pseudonymous harlequin in a hoodie gleefully using the tools of one art form to expose the hypocrisies of another.

If, however, the story depicted in the documentary is accurate, then the truth really is stranger than fiction. In a nutshell, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a US-based Frenchman with a successful boutique and an obsession with filming everything. He films his family, his staff, his customers, random people on the street, and even celebrities. Then he discovers that his cousin is the street artist Invader and follows him as he displays his work publically on the side of buildings and without necessarily getting permission from the owners of the buildings in question. Buildings like, y’know, the Eiffel Tower. 

Through Invader, Guetta meets Shepard Fairey – whose “Obey” series is a brilliant exercise in repetition and whose Obama “hope” poster is a cringe-making throwback to Soviet-era propaganda – and becomes his documentarist-cum-assistant. This is Guetta’s ticket into the street art underworld and he starts having big dreams of creating the definitive documentary on the movement. Due to the transient nature of much of their work (i.e. the predisposition of building owners and local councils to hose off or paint over them), many street artists were happy to have Guetta capture their creations.

Guetta still needed one almost mythic figure to complete his magnum opus: Banksy. Through a series of coincidences that even Dickens might have rejected as contrived, Guetta ends up acting as Banksy’s gopher during an LA visit, and later follows him back to the UK. His presence causes dissensions in the Banksy camp for obvious reasons: being an identity-free enigma and being filmed 24/7 aren’t exactly conducive concepts. Eventually, though, Banksy puts him on the spot and Guetta knuckles down to editing thousands of hours of footage into a 90 minute film called ‘Life Remote Control’. It sucks. Banksy encourages Guetta, who by now has started producing his own street art under the name Mr Brainwash, to go back to the States and put together his own exhibition, leaving Banksy to trawl through the tapes and try his hand and assembling them into something coherent.

This is where things get very bizarre. Guetta throws himself into producing his own show – at a cost of selling his business, remortgaging his house and putting his and his family’s livelihood on the line. The man turns into a reality-challenged egomaniac. He talks Fairey and Banksy into championing his show, an extravaganza entitled ‘Life is Beautiful’. Against all odds, and without doing much in the way of creating art himself (he simply hires people to realise his ideas), Guetta – oh, sorry, Mr Brainwash – becomes the toast of the arty-farty art world and sells about a million dollars’ worth of product.

Now, much of the film’s content is verifiable, from Guetta’s US citizenship to the fact that, helpfully, the ‘Life is Beautiful’ exhibition (stuffed, as it was, full of work that simply borrowed concepts from everyone from Warhol through to Banksy) actually happened. Additionally, Mr Brainwash has his own website, and trailers for ‘Life Remote Control’ were posted on YouTube as far back as 2006, four years before ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ premiered. Incredibly elaborate if the film is a hoax. But not improbable.

You see, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is about the ephemerality of modern art, the artist as a construct, and the eternal lure – even for practitioners of street art – of snobbery, sales and celebrity. Fairey sold out with his Obama poster. Banksy’s work sells for ridiculous figures while the compilation of photographs of his street (i.e. free) art into a coffee table book with a £20 price tag seems at odds with the mindset behind the work. Guetta, either as willing accomplice or pitiful dupe, is too perfect a foil, too effective a metaphor for the pretentiousness of the art world. I can only take ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ as a j’ (self) accuse.

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