“Functionless art is simply tolerated vandalism.” – Peter Steele (1962-2010)
From here comes a rich smell drawn from a load of bullshit. And in no way am I demeaning the practice of street art by saying that. I’m referring to the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop itself. This story about street art, some of its top practitioners, and a man who documented them has been so jeopardized that nothing therein can be trusted. The film wears the mask of a documentary, yet continually hints that we’re watching documented fabrication. Pranks have been the life purpose of Banksy, street artist extraordinaire who takes stage light (in disguise, see below) in the film and its director credit. He’s pulled his biggest prank – call it a “hokumentary.”
Along with Banksy, Exit features an eccentric named Thierry (pronounced “Terry”). This French emigrant to Los Angeles, who dons chops and a fedora, gets so hooked on street artists that he begins following and filming them, extending his lifelong passion for moving photography. On this level, we may read the conceptualization and application of artworks (at times by paint, pasting a giant paper image, or even gluing pieces of a Rubix Cube) as staged events, since Thierry’s awaiting camera may be the a priori impetus for the filmed product. Yet, filmgoers will grow skeptical when Thierry hands off his camera to take up street art, with a megalomaniac’s ambition and equal success. He benefits from coincidence, but goes so far with it that the film’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stance reveals nothing but contrivance.
Having amassed bins full of footage – disorganized and some of it undocumented – Thierry finally attempts to construct the documentary about street art. This film was to be the work we can now see in art houses. Yet, upon completion, the result is a juvenile collection of blips of footage. Banksy calls the film garbage and Thierry insane, then urges his documenter to drop the camera and express himself, so the former can take over the film. While this move spells out hoax for us, we backtrack, wondering where in the narrative the undercut began. Banksy’s game for his viewers adds to the film’s delightful madness. Scenes depicting the “private” activity (hmmm) of street art’s creation have a prankster’s joy, as if the camera operator (whoever he or she really is) isn’t sure if the subject is a real heist of public property or a mere recreation of it. The scenes of Thierry taking up art (eventually in a studio for a gallery) are gassy, reflecting that the creator brings forth nothing but visual farts. They come like a collective horn’s blow against the fans who cheered on the truer statements made on the street.
For years, Banksy has often shattered art’s viability by constructing it as a sham. (See his bent phone booth – really a welded reconstruction – and his piece that he snuck into a museum gallery and stuck up on its wall.) In the (faux) documentary art form, Banksy does the same without his harlequin garb interfering with the frenzy. Now spanning genres as an artist, Banksy comments on the entire landscape of art. With assured goofiness, he sends a tremor through it all.
The elusive Banksy, allegedly appearing in his own documentary.