Exit Through the Gift Shop

painted elephant
elephant art

Exit Through the Gift Shop starts off as a street art documentary from the eyes of Frenchman Thierry Guetta. As the film progresses the camera turns around as Guetta attempts to become a street artist himself. I want to urge everyone who has an interest in art culture to go check out this film. The trailer made Gift Shop look like a glorification of graphitti culture, or worst, just an organized series of skateboard-video-like montages. Fortunately, the actual film is an indictment of street artists’ desire for commericalization and for their works to be legitimized by the gallery and auction house crowds.

Right off the bat, the viewer is charmed by Guetta’s personality. He wears an inspired moustache and mutton chops combination. He is child like and his English is just broken enough to be funny. When he was a child Guetta was absent during the death of his mother. Since then, he records all the events of his life on video so that he’ll never miss an important moment again. When he discovered the street art scene, he became the perfect witness to performances that were never supposed to be captured.

In the second act of the film, Banksy tells Guetta to put down his camera and to go out and create his own art. He stopped obsessing about capturing other artists, and turned his focus to creating the short-lived works of art himself. Lacking artistic training and patience, he copied the mashed together the styles of previous pop and street artists and hired a bunch of craftmen to execute his ideas. He used his relationship with his friends Banksy and Shepard Fairey to drum up media attention for the massive show he hoped would be as successful as Banksy’s own Barely Legal exhibit (picture above by 14-2-1).

Despite Guetta’s incompetence, his show draws a huge crowd and becomes a major event in LA’s social scene. It is at this point that the movie really came together for me. Mr. Brainwash – the moniker Guetta adopted – ascends to greatness, mirroring street art’s own immature rise to mainstream acceptance. In their drive to be listed at Sotheby’s, artists risk jeopardizing the movement they helped created. Banksy and Fairey expresses regret for accidentally helping create Mr. Brainwash, despite having the best of intentions. In the same vein, the diluting of street art’s identity won’t be due to malice, but rather the innocent discovery of people like Guetta and his fans.

On a deeper level, Gift Shop was an allegory for getting lost by confusing what is ephemeral with what is permanent. Guetta used to be happy creating banal but genuine videos of life. Now he sells poor imitations to collectors who want an authentic facsimile of a fleeting moment on the street. The artists he encountered wanted the benefits of having their works recorded instead of just erased. Instead, their culture risks being as transient as their art, a rapid and brilliant effort that can be torn down just as quickly.