Word on the street is that Exit Through the Gift Shop—supposedly a new documentary, supposedly directed by British street artist Banksy—is a hoax. You can get your noggin in a real holding pattern lingering over this one; but the more revolutions I make, the closer I get to the debunkers’ point of view. Still, I suggest you enjoy the movie on its own terms first, before running out of fuel, and crashing into its art-world Bermuda Triangle.
But how can you distrust a face like Banksy’s? Or, more precisely, the shadow that eclipses the hooded figure’s visage—an effect complemented by the vocoder veiling his Da Ali G accent? This lack of image is Banksy’s style: anonymous, save for the skater-boy hoodie. Although he does this for legal reasons—his scabrous, caustic artwork is, by design, spray-painted on canvases that he technically doesn’t own—it’s also an affront to the art-world “establishment”: He’s Kool Aid to the cults of personality that he accuses them of enshrining. Ruefully, however, he claims responsibility for one of its newest celebrities: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash.
As the pseudonym implies, Thierry is as opaque as Banksy’s black-out. The French emigree, living in Los Angeles, has does’ eyes and doughy cheeks, topped off with squirrel’s-tail mutton-chops that have long outlived their ironic bite, and a fedora off the Hot Topic rack. I interpret these as warning signs. After spending several years as the local street-art scene’s resident videographer—documenting Shepard Fairey and others as they went about their nocturnal raids—Thierry turned his camcorder toward the movement’s most famously elusive figure; he’d make his Banksy & Me. The Briton, however, cooperated; he’d found a Robin for his Batman. But documentarian and subject were fated to switch roles. After watching Thierry’s rough cut of the footage, Banksy suggested, in the most anodyne terms possible, that the Frenchman concentrate on another medium. The intention was to send Thierry on a wild goose chase; but the goose laid golden eggs—or, in Banksy and Fairey’s opinion, rotten eggs: Pop-art shells with nothing inside them. And yet, thanks to self-publicity, publicity, publicity, collectors and connoisseurs not only appeared in droves for the amateur’s boffo début, but gobbled up work and artist whole.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a perfect demonstration of how imagination, talent, and meaning are no match for drive, self-promotion, and networking—too perfect. The public buys up Banksys, and Banksy, renegade from his anarcho-socialist scene for selling out, sneers at the buyers; if his work is used as a commodity, then it’s been tragically misunderstood. When we see his work auctioned off at Sotheby’s, or mounted in private collections beside Picassos and Monets, we’re not shown how it’s gotten there—has it been scraped off billboards or has Banksy put it on the market himself? (Early on, if his work ended up in museums, it was explicitly without the curators’ consent.) When he holds his first show, the media is only interested in a live, painted elephant; to them, it raises questions about whether the artist abuses animals rather than what it was intended to symbolize (ironically, major issues that people tend to ignore even when confronted with them). As Banksy, ever humbly, declares, this movie is about Thierry—not himself; but his own history, used as context, is more relevant than he cares to admit. He’s using the film to rebuild his street cred. If it’s a hoax, then he’s literally Mr. Brainwash’s alter ego, counterfeiting his own work to make a statement. But even if the movie’s genuine, Thierry is still set up as Banksy’s evil twin; Banksy may have caught on with the public, but—hey guys, I’m still cool! How does someone anathema to hype learn to toot his own horn? Subliminal advertising—subliminal maybe even to himself.