The False Messiah of Street Art – Exit Through the Gift Shop
February 14, 2011 at 5:23 pm, by Timna Burston
The creator sits, shrouded in darkness, facing the viewer. He tells us that this could be his story, but he thinks the story of the man behind the camera is more interesting. So begins an amazing creation, which turns the focus constantly, shifting the gaze from the creator, to his followers, to the audience and back again, leaving us reeling and confused. This documentary will cause you to question your own faith in the artistic process, in taste itself. To watch it is to be amazed at how little we see.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is first and foremost a fantastic film. It is enthralling and entertaining, fast-paced and suspenseful—which is truly remarkable for a meta-artistic movie. It follows the life of French filmmaker Thierry Guetta and his journey as his Universe collides with legendary British street artist Banksy. But as Banksy, ever elusive and detached, hints in the first scene, Thierry is the real star of the show.
As the movie unfolds, Thierry’s character is exposed in intriguing detail: he begins life in a state of “Tohu Vavohu”—utter chaos. Following a childhood tragedy, Thierry becomes compelled to obsessively record the world around him. He treats holidays and family functions, trips to the supermarket and flushed toilet bowls with the same meticulous attitude, letting no moment in his life go to waste. One can almost see him at this point as a creator forming a Universe from the greatest to the smallest detail, creating the good, bad, epic and mundane.
But what Thierry so desperately needs at this time is someone to focus on—a man, a woman—who would be the guardians of his Universe and give it a sense of purpose. Through his cousin, who is a street artist, Thierry learns about this new movement—painters, printers, sculptors and performance artists who set out to change the world we live in through installing their pieces in the public eye. Teetering on the brink of legality, these artists often hide their identity behind aliases and conduct their work in secret. So it may be somewhat surprising that they allowed a tubby, confused Frenchman with a camcorder to tag along with them.
But indeed, Thierry begins to follow “Shepard Fairey,” a street artist who would later go on to create the iconic image of Obama, printed in red, white and blue. And soon, Thierry is swept off his feet into a fantasy land of artists, images and secrecy—the makings of what is sure to be exciting footage.
Having found his muse, Thierry records passionately, creating thousands of reels of footage over years of work—never editing. Through his new contacts, he gradually learns of a rising star in the street art world, Banksy, notorious and infamous for working not only in the street, but in prominent galleries and even creating images on one of the most controversial walls in the world—the separation fence that divides Israel from the West Bank. It becomes clear to Thierry that he must seek out Banksy, that his destiny is to meet with him and make him the focus of his ever-growing epic documentary.
Indeed, Thierry becomes a devoted follower of Banksy and, shockingly, he agrees to allow Thierry to join him and record some of his work—provided that his identity is kept secret. In the movie, from the very beginning, Banksy portrays himself as the ultimate transcendental creator: his hood shrouds his face, and he tries to deflect attention from himself by claiming that Thierry is more interesting.
Banksy’s friends and followers are scandalized by this intruder, receiving access to Kodesh Hakodashim—the Holy of Holies: his studio, his work and his life. Like a foreigner allowed to peek behind the Pargod (the mystical Curtain of God) to discover the secrets that lie within, Thierry is granted access and becomes one of Banksy’s closest confidants and friends. He becomes so involved in Banksy’s life that, at one point, he is remanded by the FBI during one of their joint missions and never once reveals his friend’s involvement. Banksy, the removed Godlike figure that he believes himself to be, never once acts to help his friend—not even then.
It is perhaps interesting then that things begin to go wrong when Banksy starts to call Thierry to act, getting involved in the course of his destiny in a way a transcendental figure never would. Banksy suggests that Thierry finally make his movie a reality, finally become a creator himself. Thierry sets out to do this and works hard to sift through years of footage of the most trivial and most magnificent moments of his life to try and make some sense of it all and do justice to his mentor. He works with dedication and fervor. When the project is complete, he brings it to Banksy.
And the reaction? Can Thierry be the master? Can he become the people he idolizes? Can he become a street artist with the power to move the masses like the aptly named Shepard Fairey? Can he create something that collectors throughout the world would clamor to own, like the elusive Banksy?
I will not reveal the end: what happens when the mere mortal becomes the creator? For that, you will need to watch the film. I will say, though, that the way in which the street artists view themselves and talk about themselves and the way they talk about Thierry reminded me very much of claims to being the Messiah that have arisen in Judaism throughout its history. As long as there has been a concept of a human savior, there has been the concern that a person would portray themselves falsely as the Messiah.
A messiah is a threat to hierarchical institutionalized religion: if someone can just come out of nowhere and achieve the popularity of the masses, they can indeed usurp the person who has worked their way up diligently through the ranks and found their place at the top of a pyramid. It is especially interesting to note that each of these artists viewed themselves at the beginning of the process as such a person, as a person who can come out of nowhere, shun institution and inspire the masses through their art. But, what if galleries and collectors begin to purchase your graffiti? Are you a messiah? Are you part of the system? And what happens when a man sets his sights on taking your place?