BUT IS IT ART? EXIT THROUGHT THE GIFT SHOP:
by Zack Oleson
Art sometimes makes me sick. Watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, the new digital documentary directed by street artist Bansky from the exorbitant footage shot by Thierry Guetta (aka Mister Brainwash, his street artist persona), I was struck by the subject but not so much the documentary itself. Through the first hour, I didn’t know what was going on with the delegated narrator’s unqualified and unrelenting hyperbole—another voice-over doc narrator with a mysteriously foreign therefore authoritative accent, without even a hint of irony—or the attention paid to who was behind the camera, this Thierry Guetta character. A rather fat and unkempt Frenchman, Thierry became obsessed with capturing people and things in his life on his digital camera ostensibly after his mother died when he was very young. He used to record celebrity sightings, then he started eyeing his cousin’s work creating tile mosaics inspired by the videogame Space Invaders. Using that name, Thierry’s cousin started pasting his work up all around Paris, thus “street art” was seemingly born.
Street art is for the layman a thinking man’s graffiti. The work of Banksy is arguably the most well known, considering a book of his work is sold at Urban Outfitters. There’s also Shepherd Fairey, who was commissioned to design the iconic Obama campaign posters and whose Andre the Giant “OBEY” trademark can be spotted in almost any city. Thierry comes to know and follow both these two (any surprise in the will-he-meet-the-reclusive-Bansky thread of narrative is undermined by the inclusion of footage of Bansky, though I suppose it is suspenseful to know how they meet), promising that he’s at work on a documentary. Thierry’s quite a help and a lookout, and he takes hours and hours worth of footage, yet he never watches or does anything with it. He concerns himself with preservation of change before it itself is wiped out (it is a shame there’s no scene of these posters being taken down or stencils painted over) which is a worthwhile cause, even if it is through 0’s and 1’s. Thierry manages to get invaluable footage right before street art takes off and into the galleries and auction houses, evolving modern art to a street-aesthetic.
The shit hits the fan once Banksy asks Thierry to put his documentary together. (This comes after a nice segment where Banksy displays a blow-up Abu Ghraib prisoner in orange garb and black mask at Disneyland and Thierry is interrogated by “Mickey Mouse security guards.” In a legal crisis, at least you can easily delete digital evidence.) Thierry delivers a product a few months later, and Bansky’s reaction to it nicely walks the line between honesty and encouragement when a friend’s work is shit. It’s then that Bansky emboldens Thierry to do his own art and have a little show with wine; Thierry takes this as such validation that he mortgages all he owns, apparently, and helms a team of graphic artists, prop builders, and promoters to build an epic gallery of pop art pastiche attractions all from Thierry’s “idears” that will put his name on the map. Surprisingly, it works: his LA opening is in fact a “sensation”; he makes over a million dollars; Madonna asks him to design her cover art for her greatest hits collection. Mister Brainwash puts one over on the public.
Now, I have some fascination with talentless people who are experts at hype—Lady Gaga, Lola Montes, Madonna—but this case of Mister Bullshi—whoops, Brainwash—really put that affinity to the test. I like a lot of others find star power so seductive, but Thierry’s incoherence comes across with little charm, and by the time he’s wearing aviators at night and inside (still with his frumpy polo’s, no less), any chance for endearment is lost. He’s a possum that didn’t bother to wear a fox’s clothing. His attitude toward his art did not exhibit a knowing pretense that I could forgive but a self-important delusion that was offensive because it was so successful. Is it because he’s not a woman that he has no excuse for his pretension? New Yorkers trying too hard with their style. I couldn’t even look at the movie posters or DVDs without suspecting some sort of fraud or yes, brainwash.
The line between seduction and deceit is fine, no doubt, but I like my style with just a hint of substance. Or at least heavy on the style.