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Film Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010; Directed by Banksy)

 

And don't forget to pick up a copy of "Wall and Piece" on your way out!

There is so much more to Banksy’s layered, surprising satire of the culture of modern art than that wearisome query: Is it real, or is it a hoax? The very glorification of “authenticity” implied by that question is, and always has been, the target of the Bristol street-artist-cum-post-millenial-aesthetic-prankster’s iconoclastic “art”. What is it about a hoax, this film asks, that isn’t real? And what is it about reality that isn’t a hoax?

This is the fundamental paradox illuminated by Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s closing act, namely Thierry Guetta’s reinvention of himself as “Mister Brainwash”, an instant modern art celebrity who arrives, fully formed, without the supposedly requisite period of artistic growth and refinement. As Banksy himself (his face dark and hidden under a hood and his voice subtly altered to obscure identification) muses, Guetta doesn’t “follow the rules, but then there aren’t supposed to be any rules”, a fact which Banksy himself is living proof of (and the extent to which MBW is a send-up of Banksy himself is left up to us). Mister Brainwash’s art is referential to the point of absurdity; one observer notes that while Warhol’s repetition turned familiar icons into something more meaningful, MBW’s repetition of that repetition renders them meaningless. What better description of post-millenial alternative culture could you ask for?

Make no mistake, the sacred tenets of alternative culture are Banksy’s targets here. He has repeatedly eviscerated the tenets of consumer capitalism with his street art and unorthodox exhibitions, and many of those pieces appear here, along with the inferior street art of figures like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey. But alternative culture is more difficult to target on the side of a building, so Banksy swoops in and vandalizes a cutting message on one of the counter-culture’s prefered modes of communication: the independent documentary.

Believe what you will about Banksy’s art and about MBW’s “authenticity” as an artist, but I think the hat is well and truly tipped early in the film when Thierry is introduced as owning a vintage clothing shop that regularly inflates the prices of its cheaply-obtained items by claiming they are unique or “designer” garments. Art, the film suggests, is no different. MBW never seems to “make” “art” himself in the traditional imagined way; he pays a team of designers to craft his pieces in Photoshop then print them out. When it comes to actually installing the pieces in advance of his exhibition, other people do all the work too. This is contrasted to Banksy’s studio, in which everything seems in symbolic, artful chaos, just as it (apparently) should be.

What's the monkey looking at?

So what’s the joke (if there even is one, as one of Banksy’s associates wonders doubtfully)? The joke, I suppose, is on the idealized narrative of the artist as the solitary creative figure standing between the madness of civilization and the abyss of eternity, crafting art that saves society’s mortal denizens from plunging into one or the other. That’s all bollocks, says Banksy. It’s all commerce now, as if it was ever anything else. In this way, Banksy’s entrance into mainstream consciousness doesn’t diminish his commentary, it only amplifies it. If the artist is a capitalist machine like any other labourer, then art is just another product. Alternative culture is fine with believing this about corporate mass culture but not about its sacred subversive content. The key achievement of Exit Through the Gift Shop is the subversion of the subversive. In a culture that puts air quotes around everything, what else is left to us?

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Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

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