Exit Through the Gift Shop (USA/UK, 87 min)
Featuring: Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey; Narrated by Rhys Ifans.
The artist of this satirical picture is Banksy, a British “street-artist” who gained notoriety and acclaim for covertly placing his artistic renderings on public spaces. That sparked my curiosity to see this picture, as Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first film directed by the artist. I went into the film knowing next to nothing about it, expecting just a quirky little ditty about graffiti. However, like its subject, the film was about so much more.
The first hour or so of Exit Through the Gift Shop takes us through Thierry’s recordings. Thierry spent several years following self-proclaimed “street artists” as they tagged various buildings and spaces with their provocative art. As the ironic narration by actor Rhys Ifans informs us, Thierry approached his subjects rather haphazardly: even from the footage, it’s obvious that Thierry was shooting mostly for the thrill of it. As the Brits would say, Thierry is a bit of a nutter. When the artists catch on to this, and it takes a surprisingly long time for them to do so, Thierry spontaneously decides that he is making a documentary about street art.
Thierry’s exploration of the world of street art finds him seeking an interview with Banksy, whose status in the community makes him like the Holy Grail of interviews. Through his search for and eventual engagement with Banksy, Thierry’s videos offer a fascinating look at an art that goes far beyond the categorization of graffiti. Although the artists do their work on public and/or private spaces, it would be wrong to call it vandalism. It’s not like they are a group of mischievous kids spray-painting penises on walls and stop signs. Rather, Banksy the other underground artists make astute statements in public places. The skill and originality of their work puts it in the class of some of the pieces by Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst. (I don’t mean that derogatorily.) Furthermore, the level of debate stemming from the street art shows that it certainly has some artistic merit, as it incites a polarizing discussing from the public.
Moreover, Banksy chides Thierry’s work as lackluster because it is exactly like the work done by him and the other artists. If that’s the case, is Banksy not devaluing his own art? Through Thierry’s success, the film almost suggests that the value of art comes as much from the motivation behind its creation as it does from the artistic quality of the final product. In either case, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an insightful and entertaining exploration of the foundations of contemporary art.