"It was magic that this person let me film. I felt like I had the piece that will finish the puzzle" - Mr. Brainwash
In the age of fake news, misinformation, and "alternate facts," questioning what is and isn't real has become America's second favorite pastime. The first would be blaming the other political party for the downfall of society. However, playing with the concept of "what's real" has been around for a long time in the art world.
Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol pushed critics to reconsider their concepts of artistic merit. Is a cigar really a cigar? Is a painting of a soup can legitimately art? How about those giant Brillo pad boxes? Are they art? Who knows, but with more than ten years since its release, now is a fantastic time to reexamine the documentary sensation Exit Through The Gift Shop. This fast-paced movie turns critical expectations about art upside down and inside out.
Street artist (and current art world darling) Banksy has always embraced the role of trickster. The globe-trotting stencil genius continuously pushes the envelope about what we perceive as art and its value as a commodity. Recently, when an auctioneer's gavel dropped on one of his most famous paintings, it immediately began shredding itself. It was reportedly intended to completely self-destruct, but it somehow jammed halfway through.
Of course, the work increased in value, becoming even more valuable as a hoax than a traditional art piece. Trickery is "on brand" for Banksy.
One of the allures of Banksy's documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop is the strange "how can this even be real" feeling that permeates throughout. In it, we see Thierry Guetta, a French vintage clothing store owner, ingratiate himself with rising street artist Shepard Fairey. He videotapes Fairey and other artists under the guise of making a documentary about street art. However, he never spends any time cutting anything together. He continually films everything, yet the footage simply goes into storage.
At the point that Guetta meets Banksy, the movie takes a wild turn. Banksy's work is exploding through the art world, and Guetta becomes obsessed with the idea of creating his own work. Soon he adopts the persona of Mr. Brainwash, and he finances his own enormous Los Angeles gallery exhibition. Guetta hires dozens of employees to create hundreds of pieces of art based on his slapdash concepts, and they churn out the artwork at a frantic pace.
Is all of this real? Is it art? Is it even Mr. Brainwash? Did Banksy do all of the artwork to play with our concepts of artistic value? Did Shepard Fairey churn it all out for Banksy's amusement? These are valid questions. But whether the entire premise of Mr. Brainwash is fake, legit, or just crazy dumb luck for Banksy is beside the point. It all fits into the Banksy oeuvre and makes for a fantastic documentary.
Deservedly, Exit Through The Gift Shop was nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award. Banksy's identity is still unknown, and he's gone to great lengths to protect this. The buzz throughout the industry at the time was whether Banksy or Thierry Guetta would show up to accept the award if it won. One can only wish that the film had won. If only for Guetta, Fairey, or someone else (perhaps a random person) to take the stage, receive the prize onstage, and then announce that he was the true Bansky.
Of course, no one would have believed it anyway. The art world would still be second-guessing who is Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, and what is real in Exit Through The Gift Shop. Just as he always intended. (B)
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Directed by Banksy
Starring Thierry Guetta (Mr. Brainwash), Banksy, Shepard Fairy, Ron English, Space Invader, Rhys Ifans, Borf