Author’s Note, Part II: As noted in Part I of this review, this be a two-part review. Part I reviewed the film taken at face value, while this review touches on the likely subterfuge underlying it all.
To be clear, I really enjoyed Exit Through the Gift Shop as a taken-on-its-face documentary. Nevertheless, as I watched it, I couldn’t help but to become increasingly suspicious of its truthfulness (and when I got home and hopped online, I learned I was far from alone). This is because there is a strong likelihood that the film is a Borat-like farce with the main character of “Thierry Guetta” being little more than a device born of Banksy’s imagination, dumped into the world and this film solely for Banksy’s amusement and desire to provide a new form of critique of the meaning of art. If one views the film as an honest depiction, through and through, it’s a fun and entertaining documentary. It was from such a perspective that I wrote my Part I review of the film.
However, if one views Exit Through the Gift Shop as a put-on, it not only remains a fun and entertaining documentary, but becomes all the more impressive. You can’t help but marvel at the manufactured success of Mr. Brainwash. Because if the movie is nothing more than a created reality, make no mistake that Mr. Brainwash is, and his documented gallery show was, very real. As shown in the film, our local street newspaper, L.A. Weekly, did a cover story on Mr. Brainwash: “Mr. Brainwash Bombs L.A.” The article suggests that the upcoming “art happening … will either make [Thierry] an instant art star or an object of derision, a high-profile lesson in the perils of the vanity DIY spectacle.” The truth, as we see in the film is that the show actually makes him a bit of both. (In a meta-planting of the seed, the article even references Exit Through the Gift Shop, noting that Banksy “is threatening to do a movie about the documentary Guetta never made.”)
And this, more likely than not, is the true purpose of Exit Through the Gift Shop; it’s Banksy and company’s underhanded attempt to show that “authenticity” can be manufactured for sale. Through the subterfuge of the film, we bear witness to a veritable buffoon who is able to insert himself into the art world, selling himself as talented and on the cutting edge of culture, and the masses apparently eat it up. Through a Vanity Fair article from last month, Shepard Fairey illustrates the underlying “problem” with Thierry/Mr. Brainwash’s art, discussing pieces where MBW (as Mr. Brainwash often refers to himself) takes pop-culture images (Andy Warhol, Spock, Marilyn Manson) and throws a Marilyn Monroe wig on them:
“I never thought about pop art as a bad word until Mr. Brainwash,” says Fairey, who came up with the Marilyn-wig thing about a decade ago. “My thing was putting the Marilyn hair on Andre [the Giant], who’s not so handsome, and that’s sort of like me spoofing pop art but still paying tribute to it at the same time. But then Thierry, Mr. Brainwash, is putting that same Marilyn Monroe hair on everybody from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Michael Jackson to Larry King. I wish it were about him making a statement that art is ridiculous and that celebrities are interchangeable, but it’s not that at all. It’s like, ‘throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks.’”
As The New York Times rightfully notes, “both Banksy and Mr. Guetta are pretty unreliable narrators,” but Banksy insists that the film is not a hoax because he “could never have written a script this funny.” Shepard Fairey similarly denies that the film and Thierry are a hoax: “I swear to god that’s not the case…. Banksy may not want me to say that but no, it’s not.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that the film comes across, as the runner of a street art website puts it, “100 percent like a Banksy exhibition.”
As for Thierry himself, well, in a perplexingly frustrating interview, Thierry doesn’t offer any meaningful insight to support the case that he’s not a giant put-on:
Plenty say this feels like a prank. Can you prove it’s not? What do I do to prove? To live my life? One day for me is one life. The next day is another life. It’s not important what people say.
It will become important if a significant number of people come to your show saying it’s a prank. By Banksy, yeah? Yeah, yeah, this is something, but it’s like what I’m going to do? If I do it, it’s my heart and I believe. I’m a guy who believes above all. I believe in God.
Sure, you believe — but are you playing a role? No. No playing a role … It depends on the role.
Look, if you’re playing a joke on the art market, it’s a pretty fun joke. Playing a joke on the art market? But the art market, is it a joke? When you think of white on a white canvas and sell it for millions of dollars, is it a joke? Is it a joke that some people are going to spend millions on this?
So if anyone deserves to be pranked, it’s the art world … No. I don’t believe that the art market is a joke or there is not a joke. I’m not here to judge. Is it a joke, like putting [an artist’s] name onto something by someone else, so the whole world become a joke? It’s how well you play your game. Jeff Koons making millions of dollars: People have said it’s not good what he does; it’s crazy. I respect him to play well his game.
Earlier, you said that, like Madonna or Oprah, you’re going to build a school with your proceeds? What proof do you have of that? You cannot know. I can open my heart to you, or I can be a villain. [Maybe] I can grab the money and count my money and I say, “Oh, I joke them.” But somewhere I’m a believer.
How do I know you’re not an actor? Like I say, a big artist — I don’t want to say name — but this big artist has 140 people working for them. Sometimes, they don’t even come up with the idea. They say: “Like, No like.” But I respect that. The mind goes too fast. It’s not me having a nail and building a box, who cares, it’s a box, take it.
Yes, someone like Jeff Koons employs actors to create his pieces. But that’s not the same as an actor playing a guy who runs an art studio. Are you someone else acting as Thierry Guetta? The problem is I don’t understand really the question: Are you an actor to interview me? How do I know?
For starters, if you asked me, I would just say, “No, I’m not.” And I would say, “No, I’m not.” Some way I’m not an actor. If I was an actor, I wouldn’t be here. The movie makes a big question mark of everything because you see the evolution of all this. Some people say, “Oh he copies this and he copies this.” Who says that there is rules in art today? Who says what you cannot do? Learn about my past and tell me what I am in the present …
But you don’t seem to have existed before your first show. But everything comes up: You’ll find space, you’ll find art. I film everything. I make sculpture of Charlie Chaplin in bronze in 1989, or I don’t have timing, so I might say ‘89 if it’s ‘91, you know, but for me I know that I made it.
Reading that, there is something to be said for Banksy’s public stance, because it is hard to imagine anyone genius enough to “script” answers like the crazy that Thierry spits out. And that actually goes to another impressive aspect of what one increasingly must believe is a giant farce, namely, the sheer secrecy behind it. To be sure, Banksy is no stranger to secrecy (while there are been strong suspicions as to his identity, he remains publicly anonymous at this time). While the film portends to be a “A Banksy Film,” there is every reason to doubt whether he truly, or solely, edited and directed it. And unlike most other faux-documentaries, where the “truth” of the film is at least leaked, if not flat-out revealed, before the film is even released (see The Blair Witch Project and Borat among many others), there remains no definitive word on the truth, or lack thereof, of Exit. So far, they’ve managed to keep things zipped up and kept well under wraps, and this secrecy is all the more impressive given the fact that it was years in the making and, among other things, required the “creation” of Mr. Brainwash and the putting on of a major warehouse art show.
Again, assuming that Thierry’s a manufactured character, the ease with which Banksy and his cohorts were able to keep their secret is in no small part due to how easy it was for Mr. Brainwash and his art to be accepted, valued and lauded. The ease with which Thierry/Mr. Brainwash succeeds speaks to the point that Fairey and Banksy and other street artists often seek to make, and which one assumes Banksy specifically intended to make with this film. Hell, Fairey’s whole career was launched from his Andre the Giant/Obey project, which started as an experiment in creating a pop culture brand with nothing behind it. Mr. Brainwash is the next logical step in such an experiment, a manufactured artist with nothing behind him, creating pop art with nothing behind it.
As the the NY Times also noted: “Ultimately, wondering whether “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.” And I think that’s exactly right. If Exit is a legitimately true documentary, it’s an entertaining ride. If it’s one big put-on, it’s even better for the questions it forces us to ask about art and culture. The only question I have left, at this point, is whether the subterfuge will be revealed on the DVD release or if, in the more likely scenario, we’re going to get a nonsensical commentary track from Thierry. While half of me wants to hear Fairey, Banksy, and whoever the hell Thierry really is speak to the truth behind the film, I’d also be lying if I said I there’s not a part of me that can’t wait to listen to the manufactured-Thierry’s almost incoherent ramblings about the film about him that’s supposed to be about Banksy that’s really about the value and subversion of art. And the fact that I’m willing to lap up Thierry’s nonsense surely means Banksy has succeeded.