Saturday, May 22, 2010

Film Review | Exit Through the Gift Shop

Schlock of the New

by Thomas Delapa

Newly arrived on the art-house circuit, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a nearly priceless satire of the contemporary art scene, especially if you’re willing to buy into what may be an elaborate inside joke of the Borat School.

There’s a revolving door of characters in this droll indie documentary, beginning with Thierry Guetta, its gnomishly oddball subject. French-born but in the U.S. since the 1980s, the stubby, mutton-chopped Guetta started his career dabbling as a near-compulsive home videographer. In the 1990s he glommed on to the burgeoning “street art” scene, accompanying and filming outlaw artists in their nighttime tags of Los Angeles. First with his French cousin, a.k.a. “Space Invader,” and Shepard Fairey (later responsible for the iconic Obama “Hope” poster), he worked his up way to the now-famous Banksy, whose subversive, politically-toned British guerilla art elevated him into an underground phenomenon.

In fact, the compulsively secretive Banksy directed Gift Shop, wrapping it up into a wry portrait of Guetta—who may or may not be who he says he is. On a dare, Banksy evidently told Guetta to turn off his camera and take up street art himself. So Thierry mortgaged his house (surprising his wife and family) and reinvented himself as “Mr. Brainwash,” whose style might be described as a kitschy pastiche of Warhol by way of Photoshop.

Whether Guetta is a fraud or post-modern Fauve, idiot or idiot savant, here’s where things get sticky. Leaving his voluminous street art footage behind in the gutter, the film focuses on Guetta’s grandiose, hype-driven efforts to turn himself into another Banksy, perhaps even another Damien Hirst. He exploits a quote from Banksy to launch his enormous 2008 one-man show, “Life is Beautiful,” in L.A. (housed in a converted TV studio where I Love Lucy was shot.) He hires a team of successful designers and promoters, gaining a fawning preview from trendy L.A. Weekly. Despite a broken foot and last-minute chaos stirred up by his own ineptitude, the opening attracts thousands of visitors to see a crammed simulacrum of Warholian soup/spray cans, silk-screened Marilyns and junked TV sets. “I’m not sure why I’m here,” admits one youthful art-goer, “but I’m excited about it.”

When the dust clears, the film’s faintly facetious narrator (actor Rhys Ifans) remarks that over $1 million of Mr. Brainwash’s artwork was sold to the throngs. Earlier this year, Thierry’s 15 minutes of fame was extended well past midnight, triumphing in a best-selling show in New York City.

In our gotcha! era of Borat and Punk’d, unsuspecting spectators can hardly guess what is real and what isn’t anymore, which may allow Banksy to get the last laugh on a gullible, wine-and-cheese-going public. But what may have begun as a prank has morphed into the modern art world’s version of Springtime for Hitler.

The film’s final stroke goes to the seemingly chagrined Banksy (disguised in monkish cowl and electronic voice): “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless."


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 5/18/10

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