Monday, June 21, 2010

Artful Dodger

The pseudonymous British street artist Banksy, who is known for such prankish works as a life-size replica of a Guantanamo prisoner chained to a fence at Disneyland, paradisical scenes painted on the Palestinian side of the West Bank partition, a “murdered” phone booth, and ten-pound notes with Princess Diana’s face replacing the Queen’s, is the putative director of Exit Through The Gift Shop, an alleged documentary about street art.

The film, which focuses on an eccentric French-born clothing seller-turned-filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, raises provocative questions about authenticity, art marketing, and the nature of reality itself. Is it a documentary about Guetta, who in the course of the narrative becomes a successful Pop artist called “Mr. Brainwash”? Was it really directed by Banksy, who appears in it with his face in shadow? Does Mr. Brainwash actually exist? And, for that matter, does Banksy? The film is a masterpiece of misdirection. Actor Rhys Ifans’ narration claims the film was originally intended to be Guetta’s documentary about street artists including Banksy, whose identity has sparked much speculation (he’s said to be from South Gloucestershire, and his name may or may not be Robert or Robin Banks).

Guetta, a puckish fellow in a fedora and Chester Arthur mustache, talks about his obsession with videotaping every moment of his life. He is drawn, through a graffiti-artist cousin, into the exciting, subversive world of street art, filming artists like Shepard Fairey (of Obama “HOPE” fame) plastering their art on buildings and bridges, in dark of night and one step ahead of the police.

Guetta gains access to Banksy by claiming he’s making a documentary, but Banksy soon realizes Guetta is no filmmaker. He takes over the documentary project and urges Guetta to “make some art.” Guetta transforms himself, seemingly overnight, into Mr. Brainwash and mounts a massive gallery show featuring pieces brazenly derivative of Andy Warhol, among others.

If Mr. Brainwash and the documentary are a hoax — and it’s hard to see how it can be otherwise, despite Banksy’s ardent protestations — it’s a fairly extensive one. The LA Weekly credulously covered the Mr. Brainwash exhibit, and his pieces have supposedly sold for five-figure sums. Even if Guetta’s story were true, it’s not nearly as interesting as Banksy and the other street artists. The film is at its best when focusing on the artists and their inspiration and methods. Whether or not Banksy wielded the camera, Exit Through the Gift Shop is of a piece with his art: clever, ephemeral and a little maddening, sparking interesting ideas while deftly eluding our ultimate grasp.

This appeared in the Cleveland Scene.