It seems fitting that a documentary about street art is as mischievous and subversive as the movement it is documenting. Billed as a “Banksy Film” Exit Through the Gift Shop features the acclaimed and enigmatic street artist known as Banksy (we just have to believe it is him as his face is concealed and voice distorted) telling us about the failed attempt made by a French-born Los Angeles resident named Thierry Guetta to document the street art movement. Described as “the biggest counter culture movement since punk”, street art took off in the late 1990s when a common element began to be found among the variety of artists who were illegally and covertly creating and displaying their art on private property in cities all over the world.
Banksy, whose work now sells for thousands of dollars and is displayed in art galleries, is a leading figure in this movement and was one of Thierry’s subjects. Thierry, who obsessively filmed everything, supposedly took most of the footage we see in Exit Through the Gift Shop. However, as the film evolves into a sly critique of the crass commercialisation of art, the events depicted in the film increasingly become questionable to the extent that we are left wondering if Thierry is even a real person or simply an invention of Banksy’s. On the other hand, what happens to Thierry is so unbelievable that it may all be true.
In his 1973 film about art fraud F for Fake, Orson Welles lets the audience know that for the last part of the film they have been duped by what they saw. Exit Through the Gift Shop never lets the audience know how much is fabricated and in fact it is of course possible that everything in it is for real. It just seems so very, very unlikely. Thierry is such a larger than life and borderline ridiculous person/character and yet the extraordinary amount of footage shown in the film of artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey applying their craft had to come from somewhere and it seems gonzo enough to be produced by somebody like Thierry.
Exit Through the Gift Shop successfully expresses the energy behind street art and gives it a context that makes the film an excellent introduction to what is often naively dismissed as vandalism. The film certainly captures the movement’s strong ties to pop art with its use of repetition and artifice to deconstruct corporate and pop culture imagery. Whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a legitimate documentary, elaborate prank or something in between, it does functions as a clever examination of the commercialisation of art – we’re just not too sure how much of this examination is satire and how much is an exposé. Exit Through the Gift Shop is an exhilarating and bewildering experience but like the transient art form that it is expressing, that’s sort of the point.