Exit Through the Gift Shop is, upon first glance, a disarmingly straightforward documentary about street art and street artists. In particular: Theirry Guetta, a French expatriate living in L.A. who films everything he does with a digital camera, gets in with the street art crowd, and soon becomes MBW a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, an artist who mass-manufactures an entire body of work in a few weeks for a 2008 exhibition.
Guetta was a fashion store owner who became fascinated by the work of his cousin, the street artist known as Space Invader, who has installed characters from the Space Invaders video game in cities across the world.
Through Invader, Guetta met Shepard Fairey, the artist responsible for the OBEY Andre the Giant and Barack Obama HOPE projects. Through Fairey, Guetta was introduced to the infamous Banksy, who appears before the camera shrouded under a hoodie and speaks with a distorted voice.
Waitaminute. Exit Through the Gift Shop seems to be on the level, but it has been directed by Banksy, which indicates something isn’t quite right.
As an artist, Banksy is known for his elaborate hoaxes, such as replacing some 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s debut CD with his own work throughout UK record stores, sneaking his subversive works into museums and hanging them (unnoticed for days) alongside other installations, and dressing a blowup doll as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner and placing him at Disneyland, a feat that is captured on camera in the movie.
So what’s the hoax here? The greatest hoax of all would be for this to be completely legit, of course, but I don’t think Banksy has gone that far. No, I’ll assume that there is no Thierry Guetta, despite the artist actually putting on a massive show in Los Angeles in 2008, another in 2010 in New York, and designing the cover of Madonna’s Celebration album in-between.
Well, obviously there is a Thierry Guetta, we see him on camera, and we see the legacy of his work. But does he really exist, or is he part of a massive Banksy hoax? An actor could be playing him in the documentary (and in reality!), the quickly-produced (but immense!) body of work all part of a Banksy forgery. Wait, does Banksy himself even exist?
Where does reality end and the hoax begin? Or vice-versa? Let’s say Thierry Guetta is actually an actor, and Banksy is the real mastermind behind Guetta and Mr. Brainwash. If Guetta and Banksy come out tomorrow and declare it all a hoax, does that diminish the reality of Mr. Brainwash?
His body of work is still there, he did ‘exist’, in a sense, for at least a moment in time. If the hoax is never revealed, will the actor playing Guetta in ‘reality’ wake up one day at age 85, look in the mirror and ask “my life where has it gone?” Or will he have accepted the lie as his life?
This all reminds me of I’m Still Here, the Joaquin Phoenix documentary directed by Casey Affleck. For two years, Phoenix went bonkers, grew a scraggly beard, and retired from acting to focus on his rap, culminating in his infamous appearance on David Letterman.
Weeks after the doc is released, Affleck and Phoenix claim it was all a hoax. But Joaquin: you really did retire from acting, grow a beard and act crazy; the ‘hoax’ was a reality to you and people that know you, if only for a couple years. Who were you trying to fool?
Regardless of the is-it-real questions, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real blast, a funny, provocative, and surprisingly subtle satire of the art industry and the notion of just what art is. Guetta may or may not really exist, but does it really matter in the end?