Banksy’s Self-Mythologizing: A Review of ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

Yes, Banksy has once again invoked the gawking hearts of the Internet, all sorts of media sources -- and maybe even real people. 

— By | April 30, 2010

But certainly for the present age, which refers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,. . . illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. – Feurbach (via Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle)

I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower. — Banksy

Yes, Banksy has once again invoked the gawking hearts of the Internet, all sorts of media sources — and maybe even real people. The mischievous and still publicly anonymous vandal, known for his slyly playful and politically-minded graffiti (like painting on the West Bank barrier), learned an important lesson from his many years of painting on private property: art gathers as much meaning from its context as its content. It might not seem like much of a radical thought, but by taking environmental context seriously Banksy has been able to make art more of an event than a cultural artifact. Some of Banksy’s most memorable performance stunts find him placing things in unlikely places: his own work among the masters or inside a Paris Hilton album, a painted elephant in the middle of his debut gallery opening or a Guantanamo Bay prisoner doll near a Disneyland ride. Banksy’s new project, the supposed documentary on street art Exit Through the Gift Shop, plays all these tricks and more.

The surface premise of Exit is simple enough. An obsessive filmmaker who captures years of street artists in action, including Banksy, becomes an artist himself rather than finishing the film he intended, while Banksy reverses the roles and becomes the documenter of the so-called filmmaker he finds all the more interesting. Let’s go a bit deeper into the story.

An eccentric Frenchman living in Los Angeles, Thierry Guetta, operated a successful vintage clothing store and never went anywhere without his camera, which he used to film his surroundings obsessively. Guetta stumbled into documenting street art after a chance family reunion where he delved into the underbelly world of his distant cousin, Space Invader. Invader introduced Guetta to Shepherd Fairey, of Obey guerrilla marketing and Obama propagandist fame, who connected Guetta to a slew of street artists, and eventually the most coveted figure of them all, Banksy.

By then, Guetta had taken on the guise of making a full-fledged street art documentary, which for whatever reason convinced Banksy to let Guetta shoot his clandestine missions vandalizing the streets of Los Angeles and playing hoaxes on huge amusement parks. However, after years of nonstop recording and a crapshoot product when push came to shove (a spasmodic video called Life Remote Control, which I’d certainly love to watch), Fairey and Banksy both realized Guetta might just be an eager outsider with a camera — not much of a filmmaker at all.

Banksy devised a plan to get the footage back and make the documentary himself. He told Guetta to take up street art and put on a small gallery show in Los Angeles. Taking the words of Banksy like those of divine intervention, Guetta baptized himself Mr. Brainwash (MBW with love) and surprised his cohorts by putting on the largest and perhaps biggest grossing street art show — aptly, or naively, titled “Life is Beautiful” — the world has ever seen (fueled in part by an LA Weekly cover story). It featured what have now become signature MBW pieces, derivations of pop and street iconography, like a fused mutant between Marilyn Monroe and Spock. In turn, Banksy flipped the camera on Guetta, claiming that MBW was the more intriguing subject matter, and made an utterly hilarious and at times inspiring film about Guetta’s origins, balked project, and unlikely rise to stardom in the art world.

It might be true that fact is often stranger than fiction, but I wouldn’t really call this film either. The documentary is narrated in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek voiceover from Rhys Ifans, with intermittent personal stories from a hooded and voice modulated Banksy, Fairey and Guetta himself — none of whom seem to provide totally reliable accounts. While Fairey suggests his admiration for Guetta’s enthusiasm in one scene, he questions the man’s sanity in the next . When Brainwash asked Banksy for a quotable and show of support for his LA opening, Bansky offered this one: “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.” Guetta copied the slogan onto a billboard banner and posted it up for all of Hollywood’s traffic to see. It’s telling that both Fairey and Banksy’s descriptions make Guetta sound even more provocative than straightforward praise would have; the irony also protects them from fully supporting Guetta’s work.

What we do know is Mr. Brainwash somehow tricked his way into the art world and made bank (by now, probably millions) off his streetpop bubblegum spectacles. The man certainly exists; some argue that Banksy is in fact Mr. Brainwash, but I’d doubt a Brit could impersonate such a convincing French accent. Sure, Guetta might be a frontman, some sort of actor or puppet, helping Banksy lay down his nebulous cheek onto the industry; maybe he’s an adventurer himself, playing a big joke on the art world and media phantasmagoria or just an eccentric Frenchman who happened to meet the right people, break all the rules, appropriate the edgily conventional street boutique fashion and make a name for himself out of sheer amateurism and compulsive passion. These are all logical explanations of the man behind this NYmag interview.

The New York Times reports:

“I don’t know why so many people have been fooled into thinking this film is fake,” Banksy, or someone purporting to be he, wrote in an e-mail message from Los Angeles, where the film had a premiere on Monday night. “It’s a true story from real footage. Does it bother me people don’t believe it? I could never have written a script this funny.”

It seems Banksy also learned from graffiti that the mystery which surrounds anonymous infamy (a pseudonymous celebrity) fuels our imaginations, allowing the identity in question to become a prized, perhaps even sacred object of wonder for an audience. After all, the media’s occasional graffiti frenzy began with another NY Times article written in the early 70s inquiring apropos the true identity at the root of a ubiquitous Taki 183 tagged everywhere on the trains and walls of Manhattan. The article didn’t have too many answers; although it did succeed in spawning lots of copycats. Surely, constructing such an enigma in the Information age, where most inklings of wonder can be dissolved in seconds through the magic portal door of google, is a remarkable feat, and one that Banksy continues to give his best effort.

As a kid, I was intrigued by the Andre the Giant Obey posse stickers and stencils plastered throughout Los Angeles in the late 90s. Then, I did some Internet research, found out Obey was just a brand usurping slightly counter-culture ideals, and well, I didn’t care much more about it afterwards. Banksy expertly avoids those pitfalls. We let our imaginations run free a bit when we can’t lock down the biographic details of a public person’s character and background. When it’s a vandal/artist as relentless and provocative as Banksy, we cannot help but dive free fall into to his self-perpetuating media-mythology machine.

For Exit, Banksy managed to make a film that both magnified his own nebulous aura and even began to construct a new one around the elusive and ever more strange character of Mr. Brainwash. Just take a look down the yellow brick road yourself, although this one might not lead to any digital Oz behind the circuit board. The detective story many unabashedly are pursuing (Who is Mr. Brainwash?), recalls for me the sense of mystery I felt looking at pre-brand Obey stickers or bombed out iron gates as a kid — not knowing what they meant or who they were pulled me ever deeper into their cavernous plot lines.

This so natural yet utterly inchoate and disturbingly convoluted notion of who people are is certainly one of the central themes in Exit. When it comes to the realm of art, we seem to think who these artists are and what they mean are even more valuable questions of concern. Part of Banksy’s project is the imaginative creation of a public identity itself, unhinged from biography — the name itself, one masked and clouded and layered and fully immersed in the matrix of our media plugged and holistically branded world. How does a vandal/hoax artist negotiate his commercial fame in a subculture that allows only an underground rebel the status of authenticity? Make authorship the work of art, without adhering to standard rules of genre or typical expectations circumscribing where art begins and ends. Once the author is completely unfettered from the authored, then the work can become something of a Trojan Horse, unexpectedly fighting its battles where we least notice, and making us laugh silly at our ridiculous ways all along.

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