Street artists feed off the thrill of the prank. They skirt legality by night, bring unsanctioned artistic “décor” to public spaces, and either deface or art-ify public property, depending on whom you talk to. They work proudly outside the art-world gallery system—until, that is, they are ushered into its capitalist clutches and find the allure of reaping lucre from the system they supposedly sought to upend and dodge.
With the probably faux documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, famous/infamous British street artist Banksy has upped the ante and put a winking equivalent of street art in a much broader forum of public visibility—our movie theaters. This brilliant, funny, and subversively clever mockumentary is a film-within-a-film, and a film-without-a-film, pulling fast ones right and left, all in high, entertaining style. On the reality-to-hokum scale, Exit is like Borat in reverse.
Banksy turns the tables on many levels, parodying the supposed “emperor’s new clothes” gullibility of the contemporary art market, while twisting the narrative into his own brand of mock-doc silly putty. Contained within the film is a guerilla chronicle of a recent wave of “street art” activity, with artists like Shepard Fairey, Invader, and Banksy working in the long shadow of Keith Haring, Robbie Conal, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. That much is real. Where the going gets grey is the legitimacy of central character Thierry Guetta, a French clothing-store owner and amateur videographer, who supposedly amassed a huge cache of footage on street artists, including the legendary Banksy.
But Exit is Banksy’s film, ostensibly after he commandeered Guetta’s recordings and inadvertently launched a new sensation by telling the shop owner to go make some art of his own. That he did, creating the nom de plume Mr. Brainwash and suckering Los Angelenos into his bland, post-Warhol world by staging an epic prank of an art exhibition at the old CBS building. But did Banksy actually make the art?
At the end of the film, one of Banksy’s facilitators sums up the Mr. Brainwash sham-phenom as a grand cultural in-joke. “I don’t know who the joke’s on. I don’t even know if it’s a joke,” he says. In that not knowing lurks the beguiling fascination of this elaborate cinematic mischief.