This morning I woke up with an overwhelming compulsion to spray paint wildly colored designs on the utility pole in my yard. I didn’t just want to horrify my prissy-lipped tenants though I was sure I would. No, I really was excited about the possibility of turning that ugly brown pole into something thrilling. I wanted the pole to be so amazing that neighbors would stare at it in admiration, wanting to go home and paint their own utility poles. Imagine–a whole neighborhood of vibrant utility poles. I was breathless with excitement.
Where ever did I get such a wild idea? Blame it on a movie–Exit Through the Gift Shop, which I’d seen a few days before and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Gift Shop—I have no idea what the title means–is either a genuine documentary about street art and the people (mostly men) who make it–or as many people suspect, it’s a prank created by the filmmakers—just another expression of artists pulling the wool over everybody else’s eyes. Or some strange hybrid. I honestly don’t know what it was. I’m hoping it’s sincere, because it was a darn good story and moved me. But if it’s a put-on, then hey, I got took, and I’m not mad about it because I loved the film.
Thierry Guietta is a Frenchman living in L.A. with his wife and children, making a fortune from turning worthless vintage garments into ridiculously expensive must-haves for the local fashionistas. A typical L.A. story so far. Then Thierry, in a series of inarticulate on-camera interviews, reveals more about himself. It seems that since his mother died in France when he was a young child without his having a chance to say goodbye, he is obsessed with capturing the minutiae of every day life.
He grabs a video camera and shoots everything–I mean everything, kids pooping, wife cooking, driving to work—everything. He throws all the tapes, most of them unmarked, into growing piles of boxes. He never looks at them. He just keeps shooting. Some people drink, or take drugs or gamble – Thierry Guietta videotapes.
Thierry visits his brother, known as Invader, who is a street artist and Voila! Thierry’s purpose in life becomes clear. He will document the underground world of street art, make what is ephemeral permanent, capture its artists who have street names like Swoon and Conqueror and often, as in the case of Banksy, refuse to reveal their real identities.
Through his videotaping, Thierry will vicariously become one of the rebels – making a bourgeois living by day but by night he prowls the city streets, climbs bridges, scales buildings, runs along rooftops to videotape the street artists in action. With them he will be irreverent, courageous, talented and subversive. (This is the part of the movie I blame for my utility pole mania — inspired by subversion!). As much as I personally despise vandalism, I have to admit that much of the street art shown in the movie was exciting and the artists were passionate adventurers–I can see how Thierry got so turned on by his mania.
Thierry accompanies the street artists on their nightly performance art for years, becoming friends with artist Shepard Fairey (known for his iconic image of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election). Thierry figures he ought to say he’s making a documentary, so that’s what he tells everybody. But he’s never looked at moment of tape.
When Thierry meets Banksy, the famous British street artist, the quintessential street art hanger-on thinks he has died and gone to heaven. Banksy is a demi-god in the street art world. We see him only in shadow, his voice disguised digitally, a black hoodie pulled over his face. But even if you hate “graffiti,” you can see that Banksy is what he claims to be, a real artist. Banksy allows Thierry to be his accomplice and to videotape everything he does.
Pressured to produce his “documentary,” Thierry Guietta pulls out clips from his tons of videotapes and puts them together in a pointless mishmash. It’s part of his craziness that he has the guts to show the mess to Banksy and we in the audience get to see some of it – yep, for sure this Frenchman is nuts. But Banksy realizes that the lunatic has done what no one else has—he’s captured the world of street art for posterity. Somehow, and this is never made clear, Banksy gets possession of the ton of tapes and puts together this film that we’re seeing – thus making himself the director of Exit Through the Gift Shop even though Thierry shot much of it.
To get rid of Thierry, Banksy suggests that Thierry become a street artist himself. Mon Dieu! With no art training whatsoever, but after years of watching all the other guys, Thierry starts making his own art and plastering it all over L.A. He dubs himself MBW, Mr. Brainwash because he says we’re all brainwashed.
But being an addict he can’t stop at making a few pieces–he has to make hundreds—and not only that, he can’t have a small gallery exhibit, he has to have a huge gallery exhibit. So he rents the former CBS studios in L.A.—an enormous space – mortgages his home, churns out thousands of pieces of bad art (mostly gross versions of Andy Warhol work), puts all his entrepreneurial experience to work big time, gets a glowing cover story in the L.A. Weekly (the Mountain Xpress of Los Angeles) and instead of being put into a loony bin, the guy sells millions of dollars of art in a week! He’s the sensation of the art world! His work is crap but he’s a millionaire from it!
Banksy’s comments sum up Thierry’s art foe me: “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless,” he says, “but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless.”
By this time, the audience is flabbergasted. How did this certifiably bonkers outsider convince the art world he’s an artist? Or did he just turn hundreds of people with L.A. dollars into suckers? And who’s to say what real street art is anyway? Isn’t Thierry just as valid of an artist in the street art world as Banksy is?
My friend, artist James Cassara, sums up the film’s conundrum. “Fifty years ago Jackson Pollack rocked the art world by (somewhat accidentally) discovering a new way of making art.At the time he was widely scorned but the passage of time has legitimized his work in the eyes of most critics/historians.It is impossible to say with certainty whether graffiti art will attain such status. But since some collectors are willing to bet their bankrolls it will, buyer beware. Going back 200 hundred years the “Wild Beasts” of the Salon De Refuse were mocked and physically threatened for challenging the status quo of the Parisian art world. Their work is now seen as a turning point in art history.” Is it déjà vu again?
The film is not for everyone. I spent much of it being exhausted by Thierry’s manic behavior. But it was exciting, and provocative and more interesting by far than most of the films I’ve seen this year.
And it’s the only one that made me want to paint my utility pole.