Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Banksy in Exit Through the Gift Shop
Photo: Paranoid Pictures

The self-reflective street art documentary Exit through the Gift Shop is a tough one to nail down. To say exactly what it’s about would be to limit the scope of its commentary as it begins by telling the story of Thierry Guetta, a French-born shop keeper now living in Los Angeles who sets out to make a documentary about street art. His cousin is well-known street artist Invader, and with roots there he soon becomes friends with Shepard Fairey (the creator of the now-famous red, blue and cream-colored Barack Obama image) before finally tracking down the illusive UK street artist Banksy whose identity has never been revealed despite his fame and isn’t here either, although he seems to be the mastermind behind the whole film.

Banksy drew controversy in 2006 for his “Barely Legal” exhibition in which an elephant was painted pink and gold, upsetting animal rights activists all while playing to a crowd of who’s who in Los Angeles — art lovers and celebrities alike. This is where Exit Through the Gift Shop becomes a true curiosity.

As Guetta was documenting Banksy’s goings on, along with several other street artists whose works are peppered throughout the picture, Banksy soon asks Guetta if he could see a rough cut of the documentary, a documentary he never seemed to actually be making. Instead it appears all he was doing was capturing footage and storing it in boxes with no intention of ever cutting it together. Appalled with a work print Guetta previews for him, Banksy convinces Guetta to go to Los Angeles and try to become a street artist himself all while documenting the entire thing. Mr. Brainwash is born, and another piece of art is about to be made.

Setting up shop in CBS’ abandoned, 125,000-square-foot Columbia Square Studios, Guetta as Mr. Brainwash begins setting up his own personal exhibition. He’s an unknown street artist, but with presumed blind endorsements from Banksy and Fairy, along with his own self-endorsement courtesy of images of him holding a camera plastered around the city, Mr. Brainwash becomes a known commodity. It’s here I believe Banksy has conspired with Guetta to establish an on-the-spot persona to illustrate the over-commercialization of street art. I am convinced Banksy and Guetta were either in on it together, or Guetta was a pawn in Banksy’s game. Either way, manipulation was afoot and people bought it hook line and sinker.

Banksy’s attitude toward money throughout the film is almost an outward distaste. Christina Aguilera has reportedly paid £25,000 ($38,745) for three pieces of Banksy’s art. A set of Kate Moss pictures by Banksy were sold for £50,400 ($78,109) in 2006, his painting titled “Space Girl and Bird” brought in £288,000 ($446,342) and Angelina Jolie reportedly spent more than £200,000 ($309,960) on work by Banksy. With the dollars he’s pulling in it would seem street art is no longer the rebel activity it once was. Has this upset Banksy? Does he now see monetary appreciation for his work as too commercial, making it irrelevant?

In one scene in Exit through the Gift Shop Guetta cites arbitrary price tags for his “art”. He laughs as he quotes $15,000 to $18,000 for his work, which includes a spray can with a Campbell’s soup label and too many other Warhol inspired pieces to name. Guetta even designed the cover to Madonna’s latest greatest hits album, which is colored exactly like… yup, a Warhol piece. Does irrelevance know no bounds?

Of course, he isn’t the only culprit. In fact Banksy’s Moss pictures I referenced earlier also look like Warhol’s work, but perhaps even then Banksy was laughing at the money his art was earning and only now was he able to put a face on it. Either way, the point is made.

Mostly, Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on street art and may in fact be a piece of street art itself. How those involved conspired to create this documentary is a mystery. I can’t say the film works entirely, but its message is fascinating, as the work it condemns and those that buy it are all being laughed at.