The first half of notorious art prankster Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a thrilling tour of the evolution of a revolution: street art. Through the untiring camera lens of the movement’s de facto documentarian, Thierry Guetta (a cousin of street-art notable Space Invader), we see the rise of a branch of tagging that developed the ability to say so much, to speak to our emotional core, with nothing more than a simple Sega image or a well-manipulated Andre the Giant photo. Set to Richard Hawley’s driving, dreamy song “Tonight the Streets Are Ours,” Guetta (with supposed editing help from Banksy – more on that “supposed” qualifier later) captures the energy and creativity that lifted artists like Shephard Fairey from an anonymous Puck figure running from the cops to the creator of a presidential image that will live on forever.
For Guetta, the famously mysterious, unknown monolith Banksy is the big fish; he and narrator Rhys Ifans tell of the long, hard journey to find Banksy (hint: you don’t find him, he finds you), and the rollercoaster that awaited him. From there, we follow Banksy everywhere, from Disneyland to the West Bank Wall in Israel, where he possibly puts his life on the line to tag the barrier separating the country from its mortal enemy Palestine, with heartbreaking romantic imagery suggesting escape, transcendence and innocence. It’s the final and definitive proof that street art is not only viable as art; it’s necessary.
Then things go a bit wonky. Banksy and Fairey find international fame and millions of dollars. Banksy tells Guetta that now is the time to sift through his thousands of hours of footage and release the untold story, but it turns out that Guetta is fantastic with a camera and absolutely clueless when it comes to filmmaking. So Banksy offers to work through the footage himself – the product of which is the movie in progress – and tells Guetta to work on his art, mainly as a ploy to get him out of his hair. Guetta (now going by Mr. Brainwash) throws himself into the project, pulling together the most marketable aspects of all the artists he spent years with and throwing them into one giant paint can. The result is derivative, amateurish and strangely fascinating. By the sheer will of Guetta’s marketing power, he suddenly becomes the hot new artist, at least in Los Angeles.
It’s at this point that any fan of Banksy must stop and fully appreciate that they’re watching a Banksy film and ask themselves, “What is real?” It’s not that he’s not credible as an artist, but the fact that he is an artist at all, someone whose living and reputation has been made off his experiments in slightly askew realities, makes everything he’s presenting suspect – not least an improbable tale of a Frenchman who duped the art world into overvaluing hack work. Gift Shop could be an elaborate commentary on the subjective nature of art, or it could be an expertly assembled, well-told yarn. It could even be true.
Regardless of its motives, Gift Shop is a superb work, one that demands the audience ask questions that don’t always go down easily: What is art and how do you value and experience it? Banksy himself works through the conundrum, as it relates to Mr. Brainwash “[Guetta] broke all the rules,” Banksy ponders, “but there are no rules, so …” He trails off. The film ends. Was he suckered? Were we? I think the folks who shelled out $1 million for Mr. Brainwash pieces in his exhibit’s first week now know they were. Then again, fair play.