I didn’t know very much about the street artist Banksy until I recently saw the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which made waves at the 2010 Sundance film festival. Banksy, a mysterious English street artist whose identity is still unknown, created and produced the film and dubbed it “the world’s first street art disaster movie.” I have one piece of advice: find out where this film is playing near you, and go see it immediately. Is it a documentary? A mockumentary? A prankumentary? One thing’s for sure, it will make you laugh… and it might make you love Banksy. And if you enjoy getting people all riled up by asking them the simple question “What is art?,” you’ll love it.
Banksy’s tongue-in-cheek street art, sometimes playful and sometimes dark, along with the art of many other very real street/graffiti artists like Space Invader and Shepherd Fairey (of Obama “Hope” poster fame), is central to the film. However, the main character of the movie is an unlikely star – his name is Thierry Guetta, and he’s a naive, 40-something hipster Frenchman living in LA who stumbled upon the street art scene with his video camera. There’s about 45 minutes of background story and set-up: we’re introduced to street art, some of the most prominent artists, and the strange Thierry, who is obsessed with videotaping hours upon hours of footage and then storing it in boxes. As he gets deeper and deeper into the world of street art, he follows the artists around endlessly and accompanies them on their midnight escapades, even helping them complete their art while taping. He keeps telling the artists whom he is filming that he will one day create a film about street art to educate the masses.Thierry turns into a kind of video collector; he’s gotten all the key street artists on film… except one: Banksy. Banksy’s work is like the holy grail of street art – he’s
Banksy eventually challenges Thierry to finally make his film, and Thierry responds by creating “Life Remote Control,” an explosion of pulsating images that Banksy describes as almost unwatchable. So, Banksy decides to take over the film project himself, and gives Thierry an assignment: go to LA and start making art. This is where the ‘documentary’ starts to take its hilarious turn. Thierry doesn’t just want to create a bit of street art, he wants to go big. He wants to be the next Banksy. It should be easy, right? He’s observed the process so much that he’s got the formula down pat. He begins to strut like a primadonna and hires hoardes of hired hands and designers to produce his “art” en masse. He takes on an Andy Warhol-like persona as he inspects his new “factory,” and compares himself to Damien Hirst: “What, do you think Damien Hirst does all this for himself? Ha! Other people create the art, and then I put on the finishing touches.”
Theirry’s obsessive drive to transform himself into an artist reaches epic comedic proportions. He gives himself a street name – Mister Brainwash – “because I realized all art is brainwash.” He is our perfectly naive protagonist, our bumbling clown, who says, “Life is like a game of chess. I don’t know how to play chess. But life is like a chess game to me.” I literally laughed so hard that I cried.
Mister Brainwash decides to take the plunge and put on a show in LA – “Life is Beautiful” – which actually happened in 2008 – and sinks his entire life savings into putting in on. He wants to be just like Bansky. His art is recycled, tired bits of everything: bad post-modern reworkings of Warhol, Hirst, and Koons, mostly. We watch him almost fall apart at the seams as his show comes together, at one point comically breaking his leg and then giving rambling, nonsensical pain-med-induced instructions to his workers, and failing to focus on setting up the space. But in the end, he pulls it off, and a new street art star is born (or should I say… created?). At Mr. Brainwash’s real LA opening of Life is Beautiful, thousands of people lined up, intrigued by the hype covering billboards and the cover story in the LA times. Afterward, Madonna commissioned Mister Brainwash to create the cover for her 2009 Celebration album. Mister Brainwash hit the bigtime. His art now sells for thousands of dollars, and his next show “Icons” opened in New York last year.
So is it a hoax? YES. It’s one of the best jokes played on the world in a long time, old Andy Kaufman style. It’s a very, very expensive, very good joke. The overhead required to put on multiple art shows for Mister Brainwash, release a film, multiple websites and truly “create” this person – a hyped-up pop artist – is a massive undertaking. But one that is right up Banksy’s alley. It’s just SUCH a good joke, and Bansky’s art is too ironic and tongue-in-cheek to imagine that he could be playing the straight man. There are also too many clues – Banksy’s use of monkeys and the “Monkey See, Monkey Do” images used by both artists, the fact that Mister Brainwash’s work looks suspiciously like Banksy trying not to look like Bansky, and it does seem like all of the associated artist websites are a bit suspicious and flashy with too many dead-ends. Mister Brainwash doesn’t take many interviews or work with anyone other than Bansky’s promoters. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and the creation of Mister Brainwash go to great lengths to poke fun at art, art critics, pop culture, celebrity culture, and even (gasp!) at street art and at Banksy himself. I think the joke truly is on everyone.
Banksy, you’re an absolute genius. And I am SO hooked.