by Richard von Busack
Hooded like a terrorist, hiding in the cave-like shadows of his studio, his face obscured, his voice digitally scrambled…at his side, his emblem: a grinning pop-eyed monkey mask in a bell-jar, the mysterious English street artist Banksy narrates a twisted tale of fine art in Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s a tale you might want to drop everything to hear.
The documentary’s actual subject isn’t the elusive grafittist Bansky, “the Scarlet Pimpernel of art,” as one of his journalist fans called him. Instead, Bansky narrates a parable about the career of a boutique owner named Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a friendly, mutton-chopped French-born Los Angelean boutique owner whose video documentation of a covert scene led—eventually--to Guetta’s own dreadful macking on the same.
The Frenchman was certainly in the right place at the right time, He recorded the billboard zappers of the Oughties: first, Guetta’s cousin, the pop-mosaic artist “Space Invader”; later Shepard Fairey, artist of the best known image of President Obama, as well as the Orwellian posters that urged us to “OBEY” dead Andre the Giant.
And there were other late night crawlers and shinniers, painting and postering the vacant zones of LA, NY, London and Paris. Thierry and Bansky follow the most recent artists in this scene: modern digital printers allow a perfection of line and repetition of image the pioneering 1980s punk-saboteurs could only dream about. This moonlit landscape was nothing but democratic: artists hid under nom de guerre (such as “Borf” and “Buffmonster”). And legal penalties abounded: just as the visuals became more perfect, so did modes of police surveillance.
Banksy’s art has soul as well as easily accessible political content. He takes on well-guarded subjects of oppression, from the British pound note to the Israeli security wall. Not everyone would have the nerve to zap the side of Nelson’s Column with a sign reading “DESIGNATED RIOT AREA.” The best scene in this movie may be the brief interview with a cloth-coated middle-aged English woman, as humble as a button. A journalist stops her as she leaves the scene of Banksy’s latest art crime: a mutilated, murdered red London telephone booth. The half-smiling lady murmurs to the interviewer, “I think he wasn’t very happy with British Telecom”. This glimpse of a passerby’s communion with art is maybe even more inspiring than Banksy’s later, greater bravery.
“I work in a legal gray area,” he says; could the Pimpernel—or Batman, his descendent--say that any better? I couldn’t believe that Bansky decided to take on Disneyland to make a little public memorial to the tortured at Guantanamo. I would rather poster the side of the Pentagon than take on those Disney shtarkers. The piece, quickly discovered, is the peak of the Guetta/Bansky partnership; Banksy’s ingenuity is documented by a never bolder Guetta. Apprehended, Guetta stands up to the Magic Dictatorship’s interrogators, like a brave 1940s movie Gaul baffling the Gestapo.
Wilde’s proverb, “life copies art” never fails. Weird harmonies are everywhere. How about the simultaneous release of this documentary with the fanboy hit-to-be Kick-Ass; what a perfect double bill about secret-identitied copy-cats! Just as we saw in Batman (1989), the purity of a solitary figure inspires an evil replica. Eventually, the joker Guetta assumes an art identity, “Mr. Brainwash.”
Thanks to a minor injury, Guetta is even stuck to a wheelchair to make the super-villain metaphor clearer. Bansky states on camera he doesn’t know what the moral of this story is. But there’s an art piece on his website that might be telling--a greedy videographer, with a passing resemblance to Guetta, photographing a pink dahlia while plucking it out, roots and all.
Is Exit Through the Gift Shop a tale of fine art? The subject here is the story of any and all self-publicists: Nicholas Sparks, Sarah Palin, this week’s yodeler on American Idol: anyone who can shove their egos into the agoura.
It figures: “Mr. Brainwash’s” “art” is used to adorn the collected recordings of that certain mega-diva who has been called (by David Thomson) “an advertisement for advertisement.” What a gulf of distance between that portrait of M------na and a Banksy-decorated railroad viaduct: a poster with the simple, block-lettered words “Another Crap Advert”.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is about anonymous craftsmanship eclipsed by the sun-gun of self-publicity; of late-night lonely vigils and illegal attacks on consensus reality, elbowed aside by hucksterism on a Dali-level scale. Inevitably, hype, pandering and foolishness replaced the artist’s sacred tools of silence, exile and cunning.