Who is Mister Brainwash? This is not the question I expected to be addressed by the world’s most renown and elusive street artist, Banksy, in his directional debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop. (If you are unfamiliar with Banksy’s work, read our previous write-up first.) But as it is with most of Banksy’s work, things are not always what they seem. A week removed from experiencing the film and I am still uncertain if I watched a documentary founded in realism or one massive hoax turned social commentary.
Expecting to witness 90 minutes of Banksy’s life, art, and aversion of law enforcement, I sighed with disappointment when Banksy reveals in the film’s opening segment that Exit Through the Gift Shop is really more of a story about the man who set out to make a documentary about him than it is about (Banksy) himself. And when Banksy claims this filmmaker is “a lot more interesting than me,” I became intrigued.
Fifteen minutes into the film, I realized Banksy was (somewhat) right. Frenchman Thierry Guietta, who spent the better part of the last decade documenting the street art movement across Europe and the United States, is an obsessive character with the perfect blend of quirkiness, intrigue, and unintentional humor. Like Ricky Fits in American Beauty, Guietta is more infatuated with having the camera turned on than actually crafting a movie. In fact, Guietta’s “supposed” documentary never happens. Rather, Bansky talks the Frenchman into turning over the footage so he (Banksy) can play filmmaker while Guietta, who at this point had been experimenting with street art himself, heads home to “make art.” (The moment in which the documentary begins to feel more like a well crafted script than reality.)
To call Guietta an “artist” is questionable. Guietta never seems to actually create anything himself. Rather, he simply comes up with ideas (that are mostly derivatives and mashups of other artists) and employees others to do the creating.
“Mr. Brainwash” is born. By occupying more than 15,000 square ft. of an abandoned building with exaggerated pop art for his debut exhibition (“Life is Beautiful”), team Gueitta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash) is officially launched into the commercial art world. The absurdity of the event (and name) welcomes over 7,000 attendees, resulting in sales of over 1.5 million worth of….
And here lies the brilliance of Exit Through the Gift Shop. The story is too good to be true. But whether Mr. Brainwash (or the documentary itself) is a hoax is irrelevant. This is a film not so much about Guietta or Banksy or even the street art movement itself, but a pursuit of art’s relationship to hype, commerce, and its creators. In fact, Bansky has simply turned the big screen into his biggest exhibition yet – questioning not only the role of the artist, but its buyer(s) as well. And who bought this particular piece of art?
Well, I did. And you should. A must see.