The 21st Century's first WTF Art Moment: Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop
If the job of a reviewer is to tell you whether or not to watch a film, then my recommendation on Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop is to definitely see it, even if it is one of the most excruciating experiences you'll ever go through.
There’s been a few WTF moments in art history. Marcel Duchamp signing a urinal with a fake name and calling it his own artwork; Pablo Picasso claiming child-like scribbles were high art; and Andy Warhol hiring other people to make copies of the same thing before calling them his unique creations, are some of the 20th Century’s pinnacles.
Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop somehow manages to manifest one of these WTF moments, and for those of us who suspect the film to be an ego-maniacal, self-aggrandizing, autobiographical documentary (because what’s not ego-maniacal about forcing the public to consume your art against their will?), fortunately the film isn’t ostensibly about Banksy. Not the plot, at any rate.
Warning: Spoiler Follows
Exit Through The Gift Shop focuses on a Los Angeles based, French film-maker called Thierry Guetta, cousin of French street-artist Space Invader, who becomes embroiled in what the film claims to be ‘the biggest counter-culture movement since Punk’ – Street Art. Personally, this is a claim I don’t agree with, as I see both Street Art and Punk as smaller parts of the bigger movement of Culture Jamming, but I’ll get back to this.
Obsessed with the artwork of the movement’s biggest players – Shepard Fairey and Banksy – Guetta documents their practice and eventually mimics everything about their work, except, the film implies, their artistic skill.
The outcome is a major exhibition of Guetta’s work held in 2008 in Los Angeles which boasted 7,000 visitors at the opening night, and Guetta has a second solo show in New York, on now until the end of May.
If we’re to believe the film is a documentary, then the story is of a scam on the art collectors who purchased his work. Influenced by Banksy’s and Fairey’s endorsements, collectors reportedly purchased over a million dollars worth of Guetta’s artworks in the first week of his L.A. show. The gullibility of the Los Angeles cult-of-celebrity culture warms the hearts of viewing skeptics, and Banksy’s supposedly sensitive treatment of the subject’s vacuous artistry will have you leave the cinema feeling a little-bit-in-love with the SNAG in Banksy and Fairey.
However, as other commentators have discussed in detail, there are many reasons to believe the entire film is a hoax, possibly Banksy’s biggest yet. The absence of any footage of Guetta actually making art is suggested as evidence, as is the incredulity of Fairey and Banksy really allowing a documentary filmmaker to capture their vandalism in progress. The financial practicalities of Guetta’s investment in his first exhibition also seem suspicious, and Guetta’s street name ‘Mr Brainwash’ is an obvious signpost that all is not as it seems.
The low evidence of sales on artnet.com also supports the argument that the art world hasn’t really been as exploited by media-hype as the film suggests. With both shows held outside of commercial galleries, no professional dealers have had their reputation on the line in making fake claims of high sales. However, if Guetta is a hoax, there also exists the possibility that these artworks are actually produced by Banksy himself, in a style deliberately intended to suggest inferior artistic skill. Should the hoax ever be proven, and Banksy’s hand revealed to be the creator of the works, a further hoax on the art world may unfold in which Banksy is found to have tricked collectors into passing-up the opportunity to purchase his works for so little, rather than having paid too much for Guetta’s.
The real genius here is that either way we’ll probably never know if this film is a hoax or not. All prior mockumentaries have been well publicised as such before earning international release, yet as Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop hits cinemas internationally, zero evidence exists to prove either claim. The most genius acts of Culture Jamming don’t stand up and admit their intrusion into the ‘respectable’ world of news reporting, they leave the viewer wondering whether or not one can really trust anything the media purports to be fact. If Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop is a hoax, it covers its tracks as well as the artist does his own.
Either way, whether covering a real story of a hoax, or hoaxing a hoax of a hoax; Exit Through The Giftshop is a master artwork of Culture Jamming – the Culture Jammed here being that of the Art Market’s High-Net-Worth collectors, and their embarrassing susceptibility to purchasing artworks based on media hype, rather than on personal opinion.
Exit Through The Gift Shop hits Australian cinemas in June. US dates available on the film’s website. Trailer follows.