I’m nobody’s idea of an art expert, or even an art fan, but I was mostly enthralled by the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, even before I was fully aware of the controversy over whether the film is real or an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the guerrilla street artist Banksy, who appears in the film.
Taken at face value, the film covers French expatriate Thierry Guetta, a father of three and owner of a vintage clothing store in L.A. who happens to be related to French street artist Invader, whose specialty is mosaic pieces depicting icons from the game Space Invaders. Thierry films street artists obsessively, accumulating thousands of hours of footage of interviews and of artists creating and deploying their work (as well as many more hours of his everyday life, including footage of his wife and kids at various ages). Thierry’s obsession turns into a documentary project, but when his attempt to make a film turns out to be unwatchable, Banksy – who appears in Thierry’s life after the Frenchman has tried and failed to reach him many times - takes over the task of creating the film, leaving Thierry free to become a (mediocre) street artist in his own right. The film’s climax centers on Thierry’s quixotic effort to mount a giant exhibition in L.A. despite his lack of any real body of work or reputation, relying instead on the powers of promotion to create a buzz where none should exist.
That final third of the film is entertaining and provides it with structure and even a little narrative greed, but it was far less interesting to me than the first two thirds, which focused on various street artists (Shepard Fairey and Banksy in particular) and on the rise of the movement in general. It also hints at the debate over whether such “graffiti” is art, defacement, or something in between. As someone almost fully unfamiliar with the movement other than knowing who Banksy is and having seen Fairey’s “OBEY” images, I found the film enlightening despite no apparent educational aim.
The real question, of course, is whether the film is a hoax or not. Roger Ebert believes it isn’t, and an ongoing lawsuit over Guetta’s use of a copyrighted image of Run-DMC is tangible evidence in that direction. Guetta’s art installation did occur, and if it was all an elaborate stunt, it hoodwinked the local media along the way.
Circumstantial evidence that the film is all a prank abounds, however. The apparent lack of any means of supporting his family while Guetta jets around the world filming street artists and the patience of his wife for his ridiculous efforts both strained credibility: she’s either a saint or a moron. My wife would have divorced me after a tenth of what Debora Guetta tolerated. The various comments at the end of the film and the descriptions in the epilogue all seemed tongue-in-cheek, as if the joke is on us (despite the art dealer’s apparent reluctance to say so). There’s also the question of who actually created the art shown in Thierry’s show, as he’s never shown doing anything more than wielding a can of spray paint, and doing so without the confidence or clarity of purpose that other street artists in the film show. Could Banksy and Fairey have produced all of this derivative art to parody themselves and the street art scene’s devolution into a critically acclaimed and commercially successful medium? Of course they could have … but if so, why have they still not revealed that it was all a put-on?
Exit Through the Gift Shop is available for rental on amazon through that link or for instant streaming on Netflix. It’s worth watching just for the superficial primer on late 1990s/early 2000s street art, one which made me want to learn more about the movement, but the mystery of whether this cartoonish Frenchman really did subvert the movement he claimed to admire gives the viewer a different lens through which to watch the film.