“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a documentary comedy of sorts about the unsuccessful making of a documentary about street art/graffiti. When French designer clothes shop owner, Thierry Guetta becomes obsessed with recording his everyday life on film, he finds a muse in capturing street artists at night creating their work. His passion results in tapes upon tapes upon tapes by the thousands of famous street artists like Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, and the fiercely anonymous Banksy with a global reputation for his work on the Palestinian West Bank among other projects.
What is graffiti? What is art? Does it depend solely on its location? Or just whether or not people judge it as good? I can’t answer these questions alone, but personally if it were my building, I’d be pretty ticked unless it were amazing and helped attract business.
Thierry begins with his cousin who goes by the handle, Space Invader because he shapes pieces out of cubes to recreate images of characters from that video game and Pac-Man and places them everywhere.
Through that relationship, Thierry comes into contact with Shepard Fairey who created the iconic image of Andre the Giant’s face with the word “OBEY” underneath that has become recognizable in pop culture and is best known as the creator of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster.
Street artists use a variety of techniques including props (a blow-up doll, a mutated phone booth), giant stickers, stencils to spray paint through, and of course the good ol’ freestyle spray-painting method most of us are familiar with when we think of the trade. There is a spirit of creativity and passion mixed with stealth and plotting with look-outs to avoid the cops that makes the profession exciting to those involved. Repetition of similar images and signatures is what makes artists arise from utter obscurity to some sort of notoriety and sense of validity.
The film has short segments of interviews with Thierry and a mysterious hooded man in black with a voice-changer whom we eventually find out is Banksy. Banksy is Thierry’s own white whale, the most difficult artist to track down that no one knows contact information for and the harder he is to find, the more he is needed for the footage collection. Banksy’s spirit of doing it for the love of making a statement is preached heavily in the film despite his choice to put on an art show that attracted quite a bit of media coverage and money.
What is fascinating about this film is its surprise in direction. After all, it starts with family footage of Thierry, branches out into graffiti, and his aspirations to make a documentary about it. When the artists get to view Thierry’s edited film, “Life by Remote Control”, it looks like it could cause an epileptic seizure with all the hummingbird editing and acid color changes. Banksy who has a directing credit on this film gives Thierry some busy work so he can recover the footage and put it in a watchable format since Thierry is a lousy editor. The camera gets turned back on Thierry to watch as he pursues his own art career at the prodding of Banksy. What follows is very amusing as Thierry takes everything he learned through observing as a jumping off point to assemble his own army of artists to attempt to create something larger than any of his predecessors much to their surprise.
Thierry is a mystery. Thierry can come off as an idiot, he forms sentences in English in an awkwardly but entertaining way, and somehow manages accidentally to bring genius to his own promotions and art. He has such a scattered, disorganized personality and it makes him difficult to work with. For example, soon before the opening of his big show, some promoters show up to take care of some of the detail work to allow Thierry more time just to choose his pieces to put on the walls….which he STILL fails to start until 8 hours beforehand. This leads the promoter after interacting with him several times to conclude “he might be a little retarded” and just take over certain aspects and throwing things up to finish the job.
Hearing the other artists comment on Thierry’s journey, they can’t help but muster astonishment, jealousy, and a little bitterness at his clumsy becoming of an overnight sensation. Even though Banksy himself makes some snide remarks, he is the director of the film and benefits highly from its production. Could Thierry himself be a creation of Banksy’s imagination for performance art purposes? Who knows? Whatever the case, the journey is funny, interesting, and entertaining.