Wednesday, June 30, 2010

For Art's Sake: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

If you haven’t heard of the street-artist Banksy, you don’t know what you’re missing. He’s an anonymous artist, assumed to be male and British, who specializes in what others would less charitably call graffiti and vandalism. He makes strong, sometimes muddled, political and artistic statements with an adventurously comedic prankish brio. Take, for instance, the time he painted the wall in the Gaza strip with cracks, human figures, and glimpses of an island paradise peeking through painted holes. Or the time he bent a London telephone booth in half and stabbed it with a pickax. Or the time he put a dummy Guantanamo prisoner in Disneyland. Or the time he had a hit gallery showing and sold artwork for millions of dollars.

Now, here comes Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film with no director’s credit, but which wears the label “A Banksy Film.” It proceeds as a documentary culled from thousands of hours of footage from a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. As a result, Guetta has boxes upon boxes of tapes that document the rise of street art in the late 90’s. He starts out filming a relative with the pseudonym Space Invader who sticks representations of Atari avatars in public spaces. Soon, Guetta becomes acquainted with more and more of these artists, some of whom would go on to far greater success including Shepard Fairey, creator of the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue Obama poster.

Guetta throws himself into the filming, even helping the artists set up their elaborate murals and posters. As a portrait of creation, of groundbreaking, rule-breaking art, of elaborate, goofy, sometimes pretentious, statements, the film is vast in its specificity. It’s a blast watching the footage tumble off the screen in a heady rush of excitement and creativity, shot through with a sense of elaborate law-skirting.

This isn’t just a documentary film from Guetta, though. This is a Banksy film. As such, the film is more complex than a mere document of a movement. Nor is it as simple to decode. The twists and turns that take place in the latter portions of the film are incredible in their hilarity and dexterity. Is it all a prank? That’s the question some have raised since the film’s release. I’ll answer it with a question. Does it matter?

This is a fast, hugely entertaining look at the art world that is both incredibly funny and enjoyable and a penetrating look into what people value in art, how artists operate, how artists relate to each other, how the public reacts to art, and how art relates to commerce. It’s a documentary with a narrow focus that nonetheless feels broad in its implications. In its heady mix of entertainment, information and art it feels like more than a film. This is a documentary that feels like a piece of street art, radical and amusing, confused yet clear, and made from an incredible mix of planning and happenstance.

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