Exit Through the Gift Shop marked the feature-film debut of notorious street artist Banksy. The documentary’s focus was French-born L.A. thrift-shop owner Thierry Guetta, whose apparent compulsion to videotape every moment of his life leads him to document the phenomenon of contemporary street art. Guetta’s cousin, a street artist known as Space Invader, allows the avid cameraman to tape him as he illegally produces his art. Eventually, Guetta hooks up with Shepard Fairey, best known for his widespread stickers featuring an image of Andre the Giant over the word “OBEY.” Guetta soon hears about the mysterious street artist Banksy, and becomes obsessed with finding him and videotaping his exploits. Thanks to Guettta’s growing reputation among street artists, the two eventually meet and form a sort of partnership. Guetta even videotapes Banksy’s infamous “Gitmo” prank at Disneyland, wherein a handcuffed, hooded figure in an orange jumpsuit is placed beside one of the rides. They get along quite well until Banksy suggests that Guetta stop shooting, take the countless hours of footage he’s accumulated, and start assembling them into a documentary. Banksy eventually takes over the documentary project, and inadvertently pushes Guetta’s creative energy in a new direction, as Guetta becomes a kind of street artist himself, with shocking results, leading to much speculation as to the documentary’s veracity and the provenance of Guetta, his videotape, and his artwork.
He is a national treasure: but he won’t be accepting a TV viewers’ award from Ant and Dec any time soon. Street artist, situationist and public-space japester Banksy is famed for his snogging coppers, simpering apes and for debunking Israel’s new West Bank barrier with graffiti. First shown in the director’s own pop-up cinema in an underpass in London’s Waterloo before moving on to more conventional locations, Exit Through the Gift Shop, like many of his graffitied images, is a kind of cinematic trompe l’oeil.
There have been notable hoax-oriented films in the recent past: such as The Blair Witch Project, Borat and the complete works of Lars von Trier. Exit Through the Gift Shop is in this genial tradition. Orson Welles made F for Fake; Banksy has made W for Windup. As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as about as reliable and structurally sound as that house-front with the strategically placed window that falls on top of Buster Keaton. As entertainment, though, it works very well.
Introducing it at the Berlin film festival – he appeared on video with his face in darkness – the artist himself cheerfully declared he hoped that it would do for street art what The Karate Kid did for martial arts. Like karate, street art is more difficult than it looks, particularly the trick of making a living from it, maintaining a combat-ready crew of studio assistants, and all the time persuading an ever-widening circle of professional acquaintance to keep the secret of your anonymity.
What the film does, or purports to do, is take a sideways look at Banksy and the new explosion of street artists, particularly in Los Angeles. The practitioners, at the outset of their careers at least, were unpaid graffiti-outlaws, pulling off daring and often dangerous visual stunts for the sheer hell of it: people like Shepard Fairey, who incessantly replicated his Andre image on the sides of buildings, a fat staring man over the single word “Obey”. Fairey eventually became conventionally celebrated for his Barack Obama Hope poster.
At the centre of the film is the apparent friendship between Banksy and one of his biggest fans, Thierry Guetta, an LA-based Frenchman with a lucrative retro clothing business and a passion for making videos. Guetta got fascinated in the LA street art scene, followed the artists around and shot miles of unusable video in the hope of making a documentary. Eventually he seems to have made the acquaintance of Banksy himself, filming his “Guantánamo” stunt in the precincts of Disneyland: propping up an orange-jumpsuited life-sized doll near a ride.
With pixelated tongue in blanked-out cheek, Banksy claims that he persuaded Guetta not to make his own film, but to be the star of this one, and then to be an artist himself. In no time, Guetta is somehow producing hundreds of suspiciously accomplished Warhol-Banksy pop art-style knockoffs for a colossal Los Angeles show under his new street-art name “Mr Brainwash”. Well, Thierry Guetta may well exist – but at the mention of his Mr Brainwash output, you may feel a strange tugging sensation on your leg. This could be the most startling debutant in the art scene since novelist William Boyd told us all about the neglected genius Nat Tate –but Mr Brainwash’s works are available for purchase, which is more than I can say for Nat Tate.
You’re under no compunction to take the film seriously: but it does offer an insight, of a teasingly incomplete and semi-fictionalised sort, into Banksy’s working life. We see his helpers carry away a London telephone box, take it to pieces in his workshop, replace the wackily twisted result in its original position and film the response from passersby. Nobody scratches their head or strokes their chin and wonders if it is “art” or if its creator might have “sold out”. They just laugh their heads off. They enjoy it: it is absolutely hilarious and this, to my perhaps naive and untutored eye, is the most compelling argument in favour of Banksy and in favour of this chaotic film.
The same goes for Banksy’s Diana tenners: he shows a cardboard box full of real-looking £10 notes with Princess Diana’s face on instead of the Queen’s. These things could get him arrested for forgery. Like Mr Brainwash, they are inspired counterfeits. Perhaps the point of Banksy’s art is that it inhales the wild spirit of forgery: his work makes free with brand identities and the symbols of authority, it replicates them, debunks and devalues them, it is a form of benign subversion. And he could be an important artist or just a silly fad – either way, in the street and with this film, he’s providing pleasure while he lasts.