Friday 3 August 2012

From the archive: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

I'll come right out and say it: I like Banksy. Granted, there are debates to be had about the authenticity of his street art now that it's attained the highest possible profile, and been showcased in galleries and weekend supplements alike. Yet it's always struck me the artist's goal, in this instance, wasn't to keep it real so much as to keep things lively, and at a time when our civic planners appear hellbent on turning our cities into dull, unimaginative shells for colourless corporate activity, there surely has to be space for that intervention, that dissent, in our culture. These are the cracks and fissures Naomi Klein writes so encouragingly of in her work - and in Banksy's case, we could equally interpret that term "cracks" to mean "jokes": his stencilling is more often than not funny, I'm guessing so long as the writing's not on your own particular wall.

The artist's latest gag is the "documentary" Exit Through the Gift Shop, which he directs and appears in, his face and voice (as ever) masked, although the unmaskable West Country burr that comes through suggests this is indeed the man himself - or Ian Botham in elaborate disguise. Given what's to come, Exit begins in fairly conventional fashion, with edited highlights of the thousands of hours of video footage taped by Frenchman Thierry Guetta, an L.A. scenester who spent the first part of the last decade chasing street art's leading lights: mavericks operating under noms de spray-can like Space Invader, Buffmonster and - though I think this one's legit - Shepard Fairey, a recent recipient of overground success with his 2008 Obama abstraction

This first section may be the most dynamic record yet of this emergent form, highlighting work that couldn't be further removed from the po-facedness of so much gallery-exhibited conceptual art. Almost as eye-popping are the methods involved in this work's production and exhibition. These artists climb onto buildings, up billboards, and - in one especially vertiginous episode - over the roof of a Parisian hotel, Guetta taping all the while, all the while the police on the crew's tail. The movement reaches its apex of cheek with Banksy's 2005 tagging of the wall surrounding the Occupied Territories on the West Bank, an action that brought the artist's fly-by-night efforts into the political sphere.

Guetta subsequently became Banksy's wingman and lookout, most notoriously on their jaunt to smuggle a Guantanamo-like hooded figure into the grounds of Disneyland. You get a sense of just what a lark or jape these (harmless) pranks must be from Banksy's report on how he came to elude the Magic Kingdom's security guards: "I went on Pirates of the Caribbean." The problem is that the film Banksy commissioned Guetta to make of their time together turned out to be utter rubbish - exactly the sort of zeitgeist-chasing nonsense you'd expect some Nathan Barley-ish hipster to make on street art. In Banksy's words, it was the work of "someone with mental problems who just happened to have a camera". So he took the camera off Guetta, and encouraged the latter to make his own art, in the guise of one Mr. Brainwash.

It's around about this time that Exit Through the Gift Shop invites us to question the authenticity of what it is we're watching, in a way some of those caught on camera clearly didn't. Mr. Brainwash proves himself utterly inept (spilling paint in the back of his car, falling off a ladder on the eve of a major show) and mostly clueless (employing an army of minions to cover up the fact he's got no idea how to create the work himself - one senses a barb here at the working methods of certain Young British Artists). Largely derivative (some Warhol screenprints here, some very Chapmanesque dolls there), there's precisely nothing distinctive about Guetta's art, which is why it can be reproduced so easily by a team of willing underlings. Naturally, the work flies off the walls, and Guetta (or, rather, Mr. Brainwash) becomes an overnight sensation, eventually landing the prime gig of designing the cover for Madonna's "Celebration" album - Ms. Ciccone, of course, being one who never knowingly allows a bandwagon to pass without her scrutiny.
What we have, then, is a film about as savvy as perhaps one needs to be to get by in the modern art market: one that, while promoting Banksy's handiwork (and Exit does indeed stress the hands-on element of street art, something not every passing Joe or Thierry is capable of), creates in Guetta a sort of shadow figure, an anti-Banksy, onto whom the negative, less palatable aspects of street art can be projected. As a 90-minute feature, it has the spontaneity and energy of the very best guerilla artistry, yet it's possible the whole project was conceived to throw a spotlight on its director's chosen form, inflate its prices, and then expose the market as a sham, so that Banksy can get back to doing what he loves and does best, away from the limelight, after dark. As his street art manipulates pre-existing spaces and surfaces, so too the film confirms him as a master manipulator of form, content and audiences. Should he want it, a long and fruitful directorial career seems assured. Thierry Guetta: not so much.

(January 2011)

Exit Through the Gift Shop screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.15am.

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