Thierry is a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, obsessed with his home video camera. He takes pictures of every minute of his life–even toilets flushing. On a vacation to see family in France, he spends time with his cousin, “Space Invader,” who creates tile images of characters in the video game and installs them around Paris. Thus, Thierry inadvertently begins filming a documentary of the emerging street art scene. Footage from his camera was used to make the film Exit Through the Gift Shop.
The film is an extremely enjoyable viewing experience–the story arc is supported by a rather gravely British narrator, the images of street artists evading police provides tension and suspense in the first hour of the film, and Thierry is an extremely quirky, funny, unique person. Using conventional movie genres, I’d describe it as a docu-comedy.
Eventually, Thierry’s search for Banksy, the notoriously reclusive, secretive and perhaps most successful street artist in the world (only Shepard Fairey could contest him), becomes the focus of the film. By this point, Bansky has appeared in several shots, cloaked in darkness in the corner of a paint-covered studio, providing commentary on Thierry and street art.
Right after Thierry documents Bansky’s blockbuster L.A. show–one that netted Bansky millions of dollars in profit and marked the start of what I would call the “Industry-based” period of street art–Thierry embarks upon a career as a stencil and visual artist. [Since his attempt at a feature-length documentary film was compared to watching someone with ADHD click through a television with 900 channels.] After some time on the streets, he organizes his own show (“Life is Beautiful”) and attracts thousands of Angelenos. As Mr. Brainwash (or MBW), Thierry sells an estimated million dollars of art at that one show.
Thierry’s works are straightforward copies of those by other artists. One of his assistants says they “basically scan and photoshop.” In Thierry’s hands, Banksy’s image of a little girl with a forehead bullet wound becomes a portrait of John Lennon, with a forehead bullet wound. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans become paintings and sculpture of a aerosol can with the Campbell’s logo marked “soup spray.”
Ultimately, the film questions the distinction between art and street art. (This is one of the questions raised in Bansky’s work, particularly in the a series which he surreptitiously installed in the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Britain.) In its early years, street art was more easily confused with graffiti or vandalism. As artists are increasingly collected by museums and private investors, and shift away from public display and toward the private auction and gallery system of high art, the differences between them have eroded. Was money-making and artistic elevation the goal of street artists? Decidedly not, according to Bansky in the film. Is it something to be abjured? Clearly not, as we see Bansky curates the blockbuster show in LA. But can the blockbustering of street art be the subject of its art work? This is, at its heart, probably what Exit Through the Gift Shop is. It is an artistic statement, credited to Bansky, about the transformation of street art into art.
Thierry—-buffoon, naif, sycophant, trusted collaborator—is depicted as the architect of this hollow accomplishment: convincing the public and art collectors that street art can be rendered “completely meaningless” (if I caught Bansky’s words correctly). The alternative interpretation is that Thierry is clearly outside street art—documenting it, then a fanboy imitator—and so poses no real threat to its continuity or style. In this light, street art does not become meaningless, but its adoption by mainstream art circles does. If true, street art accomplishes something graffiti did not: sustaining a vibrant community and coherent, challenging artistic conventions by capitalizing upon success and visibility. Ergo, street art is the only movement since pop art to game the gamers—to illuminate the hypocrisies of the art establishment, even while finding its place within it.
For more on the film, I recommend a great recent piece in Slate. There is, of course, a Wikipedia page on Mr. Brainwash. For images of his work, there’s photo coverage of a show in New York. Following the thread of the argument I’ve made, a New York Times reporter set out to find out if Mr. Brainwash is real, or if he is a character created to make such a critique. New York Magazine published a similar piece, including a really amusing interview with Mr. Brainwash in which the journalist’s questions about whether Thierry is an actor turns into an existential Laurel and Hardy routine (or is that redundant–maybe all Laurel and Hardy routines are existential).
Here’s hoping the film becomes available in time for the fall semester. The kids will love this.