Friday, February 4, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop
seen online via Hulu

I've already discussed my feelings about graffiti. I thought that watching Exit Through the Gift Shop might offer me some new insight about why its practitioners pursue their art the way they do, but I'm afraid to say it didn't. Though this movie focuses more on street art - imagery, sometimes mixed with slogans, displayed on buildings and sidewalks, often illegally - many of the same principles apply, and again, my feeling is the same: as talented as these outlaw artists may be, I question whether its creation is worth risking life and limb (not to mention jail time).

I found the movie interesting in terms of how the filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, ended up becoming the filmed, in a different movie entirely from the one he envisioned. His compulsion to film everything in his life struck me as odd, yet entirely modern, indeed, almost post-modern. So many people these days are eager to film their lives and post it on YouTube, no matter how exciting or mundane, yet Thierry had no interest in that sort of thing. He had to be coerced into making a movie; if that hadn't happened his tapes would've just sat gathering dust.

I couldn't understand this at first, but then I remembered how all throughout my school years, I would take photographs of me with my friends all the time, and I'd put them into my album and forget about them after awhile. I never thought about what else could be done with them back then. Now, when you take a picture, you can upload it onto Facebook, or your iPhone, or your blog, or what have you, and you never have to be disconnected from it.

In Thierry's case, he was interested in filming other people in general and street artists in specific, yet that compulsion to chronicle everything is there. In one scene, he spills a can of paint in the back of his car. He's naturally startled at first, but then he remembers the camera's still on him and he instructs the cameraman to keep rolling. Even in moments like this, he's aware of the camera, whereas most people's instinct would probably be to find a way to clean the mess up.

Are we really so narcissistic? Are we so eager to assign meaning in the most meaninglessness of events in our lives, especially with a camera in front of us? I suppose so. We're all the directors and stars of our own little movies, but the problem is that we're not in complete control of the script.

Then there's Banksy. He sets Thierry on to a different path, from would-be filmmaker to street artist, even as Banksy takes over the creation of the film when it's clear Thierry has no idea how to make a movie. This is a very bizarre, metatextual twist to the story - the two men switching roles. I know that there's some debate as to how much of Gift Shop is real, and indeed, I watched it with this possibility in mind (though it certainly looks real), but regardless, I have to admit I liked this "plot twist." There's such a dogged earnestness to Thierry as he's presented here, that it seems almost inevitable that he would want to try to emulate his street art heroes at some point.

Is Thierry any good as a street artist? His new obsession, not only to be a street artist but to be a big one, seems predicated as much on hype as anything else. I think Thierry even admitted it at one point. His art, to me, didn't seem much different from that of his peers, and it obviously owes a great debt to Andy Warhol as well as Banksy himself, yet he was able to build enough hype around it that people came for miles around to his gallery show. His nom de plume, Mr. Brainwash, was well-chosen, methinks.

Was this Banksy's intent - to help manufacture an overnight art world celebrity? I don't doubt it; the people standing in line for Thierry's show and gazing starry-eyed at his installations did come across to me like they had been sold a bill of goods without reading the fine print. Once again I found myself thinking about Jean-Michel Basquiat and how he was decreed a star almost overnight, and how much of that stardom was fueled by a wave of hype, though I would argue that he was more of an original than Thierry.

Art is whatever the artist says it is, but it can also be whatever the observer says it is, and if the observer says it loudly enough, other people can and often will fall in line. Think of Charlotte's Web: Charlotte made people believe Wilbur was special, even when he wasn't. How? By proclaiming it in a public venue as often as possible. I think Thierry's venture into street art has a similar theme. This may not be a new idea - Warhol conclusively proved this decades ago - but it makes for an interesting narrative.


  1. This might well be the best post on the film I've read. So many seem to be getting snagged on whether or not what they're watching is true, that they are glossing over the film's true intent. As you say -

    Art is whatever the artist says it is, but it can also be whatever the observer says it is, and if the observer says it loudly enough, other people can and often will fall in line.

  2. Wow. Thanks. I did watch it thinking that a metaphorical curtain would be pulled back to reveal a deception of some sort, but it looked real enough to me, so in the end I decided it didn't matter too much.


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