Years back I went to the museum with my brother and mother. In one of the larger rooms—high vaulted ceiling, crisp white walls, echo chamber acoustics—we came across a forklift sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by some rubble and, to keep away curious hands, velvet ropes. The joke came naturally: Put a plaque next to this thing and too many people would take it for a sarcastically avant-garde piece of art. We laughed and moved on, because no one could be that dim, right?
Exit Through the Gift Shop asks that very question, but it gets there circuitously. The bulk of the film is a documentary about the street art movement as told through the lens of L.A.-based French expat Thierry Guetta, a clothing boutique owner who is never without his camera. And I do mean never: toilet flushes, celebrity encounters, mornings with his family, he’s got them all on camera.
By chance one of Thierry’s cousins is the street artist Invader, a guy who puts together mosaics of figures from the Space Invaders video game and plants them covertly in his hometown and elsewhere. Intrigued, Thierry follows him on an excursion, and before long Thierry’s got access to the stars of the street art scene: after Space Invader he meets Shepard Fairey (he of the Andrew the Giant “Obey” posters), and after Fairey he meets the biggest name of them all: the elusive Banksy, whose work can be seen everywhere from Los Angeles to Palestine.
Thierry gets about as deep as he can into the scene as an observer, and what he captures of the street art scene is the most intimate portrait of these elusive figures you’ll find everywhere. But one offhand comment from Banksy—“go back home and put on a little art show of your own”—sets Thierry in a new direction. He will become a street artist himself.
Thierry adopts the moniker Mister Brain Wash and drafts a veritable army of engineers, craftsmen, sculptors, graphic designers and artists to put on the biggest damn street-art show Los Angeles has ever seen. That Thierry does little more than commission others to mash up incongruous pop culture artifacts—say, putting Marilyn Monroe’s hair on a bunch of random contemporary celebrities—does not seem to bother him.
Thierry’s work is shit, of course; one glance at it—especially after seeing so much good work from real street artists—and you can tell it’s counterfeit. There’s no there there, as the saying goes, but that doesn’t stop mobs of L.A.’s finest from lining up to buy a truly ridiculous amount of his work on opening night. I truly believe he was the man who could have sold L.A. the forklift with the pile of rubble. Were it not for his total obliviousness, he would be the next Marcel Duchamp.
It’s interesting that Banksy, who directed the documentary using piles and piles of Thierry’s (disorganized, unlabeled) footage, made Exit Through the Gift Shop more about Thierry than about the street art movement. And I must admit it felt a bit like a bait-and-switch; I’m a fan of Banksy and his peers, have read a few books and spent time browsing through Internet archives of their work. They believe—rightly, in my mind—that the notion that public spaces belong only to advertisers is wrongheaded to the point of insanity. They also tend to think of museums as ghettos, and that art should be available to everyone in their daily lives. That, I care about. I did not give a whit about the guy who caught them on camera.
But then, suddenly, I did. Thierry’s transformation from charming madman to unbearably pretentious “artist” may very well be Banksy’s perspective on the devolution of street art itself; when last we see Banksy’s work, he’s gone from street corner graffiti to big-time art shows with stars like Angelina Jolie and Jude Law in attendance. Shepard Fairey, he of the “Obey” posters, catapulted himself into doing the official artwork for the Obama campaign. Art that was meant to be about the place and the social climate instead became about the artists. Perhaps that’s inevitable.
But understand the documentary is not a grim one; it only shows evidence that Banksy is as aware of his movement as anyone. Exit Through the Gift Shop is, actually, hilarious as hell; first because of Thierry’s unimaginable audacity, then the sheer fascination of the street art scene, and then as a car crash of ego, pretension, and a hell of a lot of moneyed people proving the axiom that being rich does not equal having taste. The lens is Thierry’s, but the vision is Banksy’s, and (as always) his vision cuts in every direction it looks. Who’s the joke on? Everyone, probably. But it’s a damn good one all the same.