ARIN6903: Exit Through the Gift Shop – an elaborate joke on the art world?

The recently released film Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fine example of what Bolter and Grusin termed “remediation” (the process where digital forms borrow and attempt to surpass earlier forms, Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R.A., 1999) – featuring and focussing on a dizzying array of artistic and film styles to form a picture of Thierry Guetta, the surprising LA-based street art success.

The film began life as thousands of hours of footage that Guetta shot of street artists working around the world – he first gained entry to this clandestine world via his cousin Space Invader Eventually, Guetta was able to ingratiate himself into the upper echelons of the street art world, gaining the trust and advice of wunderkinds such as American Shepard Fairey (responsible for the Barack Obama “Hope” portrait) and the mysterious Bristol-born Banksy. Guetta worked for different street artists as a fixer of sorts, assisting them in the dead of night to erect their artworks, many times risking arrest or injury to do so.

Guetta would religiously film every time he went out to assist, the artists (and Guetta himself) under the impression that he was also a director working on a documentary about street art.  What they were unaware of is that Guetta had no filing system for his footage, simply storing the tapes in masses of boxes at his home. The job of reviewing and putting together the footage would be mammoth.

Exit Through the Gift Shop was marketed as “A Banksy film”, however it is actually about Guetta.  Guetta’s deception becomes clear when Banksy asks to see the footage that Guetta has assembled.  The first edit of the “film” called Life Remote Control is a mess, a jumble of visuals smashed together with no clear narrative form.  Banksy then decides to take control, taking the raw footage Guetta shot and creating the film, with Guetta as the main character. Writing in The Vine, critic Chris Cork says:

Exit Through The Gift Shop gradually reveals itself to have all along been not so much a documentary, but instead a boiling, subversive and exacting work of Banksy art in itself; one of equal merit to anything the artist has ever sprayed on the outside wall of a pub. (Cork, C. , 2010)

In the meantime, Guetta decides to have a crack at being an artist, adopting the pseudonym “Mr Brainwash”. In a modern day version of Warhol’s Factory, Guetta recruits a team of LA graphic designers with the aim of putting on his own art show. This is not before he installs some stencil street art in prominent positions around LA. With his designers, Guetta is almost like a song composer and conductor of an orchestra – he himself does not create the artworks – communicating his “vision” to the graphic designers who realise it for him. With a knack for self publicity, Guetta attracts quite a lot of attention from the LA art press and later enjoys a huge crowd to his debut show which also makes huge sales. Behind the scenes, the production of the show had been in tatters due to Guetta’s almost ADHD-like inability to focus. Eventually, some of his staff take charge to make the final placements of different pieces.

Now, to the art itself.  It is manifestly clear that Guetta was heavily influenced by the street artists he was so privileged to have access to. His work is a meld of styles:  stencils, reverse negatives, Warhol-like portraits. Banksy himself is critical of Guetta’s work, believing that it lacked originality and was cheap. Some film critics have suggested that Banksy and Shepard Fairey are simply jealous of Guetta’s success and the film is an elaborate swipe at him.

Regardless, the film does raise many questions about art and some of its recent incarnations: what is art? Is something that is remediated or remixed considered original? It also raises questions about the modern culture of consumption and the use of PR and public image manipulation (indeed part of Banksy’s allure is the fact that he remains unidentifiable).

Critic Peter Bradshaw writing in The Guardian comments

Perhaps the point of Banksy’s art is that it inhales the wild spirit of forgery: his work makes free with brand identities and the symbols of authority, it replicates them, debunks and devalues them, it is a form of benign subversion. (Bradshaw, P. , 2010)

Is Banksy’s work worthless graffiti? Perhaps it is, but it certainly gets people talking about art and debating street art’s merits. It also always has a message behind it, usually controversial.

To my mind, artists such as Fairey and Banksy are inherently more original than Guetta who cheapened the process by creating an assembly-line production system and appeared to be more about getting rich, after seeing the success of Banksy in particular.

The film itself is also considered to be a possible elaborate hoax on the artworld itself, with rumours that the real director is either Spike Jonze or Harmony Korine. As Banksy has discovered himself, there is nothing like mystery and rumour to stir intrigue.

View the Exit Through the Gift Shop trailer:

Guetta’s Warholian Kanye West portrait:

Mr Brainwash's Kanye West portait

Mr Brainwash's Kanye West portait

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster:

Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster

Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster

References:

Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R.A. (1999) Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, Mass; London:  MIT Press

Bradshaw, P. (2010) Exit Through the Gift Shop
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/mar/04/exit-through-the-gift-shop-review
Last accessed: 20/8/10

Cork, C. (2010) Exit Through The Gift Shop – movie review
Accessed at: http://www.thevine.com.au/entertainment/movie-reviews/exit-through-the-gift-shop-_-movie-review20100601.aspx
Last accessed: 20/8/10

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