This is the spirit of ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, a new documentary brought to us by Banksy but not directed by him (the film has no such credit). It profiles Banksy and prods at issues raised by his success, from originality to commercialisation. But it’s a wonky, sideways profile in that the film pretends not to be about Banksy. He – or whoever made the film – employs a fall guy to make himself look good. Call it passive self-promotion. Some even call it a hoax. But that’s missing the point: even if the final section of the film doesn’t feel as honest as the earlier parts, there’s nothing to suggest that the whole thing is made up (which is different from savvy editing and presentation). Part of the problem is that we expect a Banksy project to be a joke on us. Whatever the film is, it’s sparky and funny and invigorating to watch.
The fall guy – let’s call him Banksy’s mirror – is Thierry Guetta, a hipster French exile in Los Angeles introduced to us from the beginning as obsessed with video cameras and looking for an outlet for a creeping early middle-aged ennui. Essentially the film has two narrators: Rhys Ifans, buoying the story along in voiceover, and Banksy, who pops up occasionally in silhouette to offer commentary. Both lend their voice to a mass of archive footage, much of it shot by Guetta, who, we’re told, started filming his cousin Invader (the French bloke who plasters mosaics everywhere) in the late ’90s and moved on to other artists, including Shepard Fairey and Banksy.
We’re told that after many years of filming these artists on roofs, at night or in their studios, Guetta edited his footage into a mess called ‘Life Remote Control’. Which is where Banksy decided to take over and turn the archive into something watchable. Which is where we join the party.
The cheeky twist in the tale is that Guetta, encouraged by Banksy, then becomes an artist too. He exhibits and sells work at a hyped-up Los Angeles show, and all the signs are that Banksy is closer to this late creative flowering than he admits. Most of Guetta’s works look like D-grade Banksy rip-offs and there’s a sense that there’s a smart mind behind this ‘bad’ work, which includes a giant aerosol can labelled with branding for ‘Campbell’s Tomato Spray’.
So, whether Guetta’s burgeoning art career is under the patronage or direction of Banksy – or both – is the question you must take away. Whatever the answer, the film is a rousing tribute to street art, a crafty autobiography and a cheeky comment on the bravado of artists, talented or otherwise, and the gullibility of their punters – us included.