Friday, May 28, 2010

Exit Through The Gift Shop, or The Art of the Hoax

exit-through-the-gift-shop-20100402-142633 “I’m playing chess.  I don’t know how to play chess, but life is a chess game.”

So says Thierry Guetta, the subject of the new street art documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

I say street art documentary, but the film’s director, the British street artist Banksy, considers it “the world’s first street art disaster movie.”

And while Guetta is without a doubt the focus of the film, it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.  Guetta originally set out to cull from thousands of hours of disorganized footage a documentary about the street art movement, specifically its kingpin: Banksy.

As the story goes, Banksy turned the tables on the eccentric Guetta after viewing the spoiled fruits of the man’s labor: the 90-minute nightmare Life Remote Control: The Movie.  For our viewing pleasure, Banksy includes a minute or two of Guetta’s disasterpiece in Gift Shop.  Life Remote Control is Koyaanisqatsi overexposed, sped up, unfocused, and tripped out.  It’s seventeen out-of-sync projectors playing low-budget skate videos on the same screen from different angles.  It’s a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of flaming bag of dog shit.

If it’s real.

What Banksy lets us see of him.You see, Banksy isn’t in the business of creating straightforward work.  When he’s not stenciling rats armed with anti-establishment wit, he’s cutting apart phone booths and welding them back together to look like they’ve been murdered.  He painted a live elephant to match a wallpapered living room, forcing show attendees to deal with “the elephant in the room.”  His infamous art on the Gaza Strip Barrier – a child in balloon-powered flight, a giant pair of scissors cutting out an entryway, people digging toward paradise on the other side – undermine the nature and purpose of the structure.  At his best, he deals in subversion or the simulation thereof.

So forgive me if, in the days after my seeing the movie, I’ve become less convinced that what I saw was an actual documentary.

Plenty of others seem to agree.  The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote in March, “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.”  Jeanette Catsoulis of The New York Times’ believes that “what [viewers] will find is, like Banksy’s best work, a trompe l’oeil: a film that looks like a documentary but feels like a monumental con.”

Faux documentaries are not new.  And I don’t mean the mockumentary format championed by Christopher Guest and company.  I’m speaking of your Borats, your pre-release Blair Witch Projects, even Orson Welles’ F for Fake – films enhanced by how they blur the line between truth and fiction. 

That line must go right through Thierry Guetta’s house – no, right through his brain.

Gift Shop gives us a lot about Guetta to start.  He’s a French export living with his family in LA.  He used to earn money upselling old clothing as “vintage” (remember this when we get to the part about him selling art).  He has (or had) a compulsive need to film everything, which blossomed into him following around and “documenting” local street artists.  His cousin, Space Invader, turned him onto Shepard Fairey (yeah, that guy), who then hooked up him with the infamous Bansky.

The events leading up to Guetta’s connection with Bansky seem just odd enough to be true – certainly worthy of documenting.  What follows begins to stretch and distort plausibility.

LOOK AT THE SIDEBURNS ON THIERRY GUETTA Guetta becomes Banksy’s right-hand man, filming everything under the auspices of a documentary that doesn’t exist.  As I said, Banksy forces his hand and the result is Life Remote Control: The Movie.  Banksy then encourages Guetta to become Mr. Brainwash, a street artist treading ground stupidly similar to Banksy.  In 2008, MBW hires a workshop of prop artists and graphic design elves to churn out an absurd amount of material for an art show he calls “Life Is Beautiful.”  LA Weekly covers the massive show.  These “works of art” sell for preposterous amounts of money.

Fast Company’s Alissa Walker isn’t buying any of it: “Guetta is the biggest give-away here. His klutzy, bumbling character is blissfully over-the-top and clearly in on the ruse.”  His busted English and Palin-esque thought processes may be entirely genuine, but his bio doesn’t jive with itself.  How does a father of four leave his shady t-shirt selling business to gallivant around the world with street artists?  How does he single-handedly finance the mammoth “Life Is Beautiful” show?  And why do we never see him making the art himself?

I don’t believe that Guetta is Banksy.  Dude’s too real and too crazy to be that kind of mastermind.  But I wouldn’t put it past him to gleefully take part in an elaborate ruse constructed by Banksy and co-conspirator Fairey (who happily endorsed the Mr. Brainwash show).  Just look at how much fun he has playing toreador to New York’s futile bull.

But did Life Remote Control ever exist?  Did Banksy really discover Guetta because of the Frenchman’s filmic aspirations?  Is Guetta actually opening a show in New York or designing album covers for Madonna?  Or is he merely a vehicle for more of Banksy’s subversions?

Mr. Brainwash's "signature" image.

If that’s the case – and MBW’s work is just, as Walker puts it, “Banksy trying not to look like Banksy – then this goes beyond pseudonym.  Banksy’s subverted the concept of the artist.  And how better to do that on a grand scale than to make a “documentary” about the con man through which you’re delivering your newest work?  Work of purposefully “poor” quality, meant to mock and humiliate those foolish enough to pay for it.

Banksy’s mockery permeates what Slate calls “a poisoned valentine to the movement he made famous.”  We’re given an hour and a half to guffaw at and cringe in embarrassment for Guetta.  To slap our foreheads as he stumbles over his explanation of the Mr. Brainwash moniker or his convoluted Elvis-with-toy-gun painting.  To chuckle knowingly as Banksy closes the film by saying, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that anymore.”

He’s targeting artists.  He’s targeting overeager collectors.  And if we’re content to see Gift Shop as a mere documentary, Banksy’s targeting us.