“I like the idea that the more stickers that are out there, the more important it seems. The more important it seems, the more people want to know what it is, the more they ask each other and it gains real power from perceived power.” Shepard Fairey’s assessment of his street work is at once — and appropriately — insightful and elusive. Such slippage is well known to Fairey, the artist who designed the iconic “Hope” poster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (and whose legal dispute with AP over copyright infringement was complicated when he admitted to faking evidence). And the question he raises here — is there a difference between real and perceived power? — is quietly, brilliantly deconstructed in Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Like everyone else in the documentary, Fairey has had interactions with its ostensible subject, Thierry Guetta. As described by director Banksy, who appears in hoody and shadow, his voice electronically warped, Thierry “tried to make a film about me, but he was a lot more interesting than me, so now the film is kind of about him.”
Key words: kind of. Thierry, you learn from definitively ironic narrator Rhys Ifans, is a Frenchman living in Los Angeles with his family, owner of a vintage clothing store and video-camera aficionado: he brings it with him everywhere. “More than like any drugs to anybody,” Thierry tells his interviewer, “It was obsession. I couldn’t do anything without capturing, I keep filming, keep filming.” (He adds that he is so compelled, perhaps, because he lost his mother at a young age, and now fears sudden loss, self-treating the anxiety by his incessant documenting.) Following a series of indicative captures — shopping adventures, mirror self-portraits with camera, toilet flushes — the film reveals the subject that will lead Thierry into another world entirely, one that is especially in need of being captured — the ephemeral world of street art.
Thierry’s images of taggers, graffitists, mural and spray painters are intriguing and hectic, late-night expeditions transformed into mini-instances of performance art. In order to get access to more and more legendary artists, Thierry says, he decides he’ll turn the hours and hours of footage into a documentary. Or at least that’s what he tells his subjects, who agree to have him tag along (here names are dropped, from Neckface to Dot Masters to Borf). Some of them, like Fairey, appreciate Thierry’s apparent dedication: “He just wanted to go whenever I was going,” remembers the creator of the Obey sticker campaign. Brief clips show Thierry’s efforts to scale walls and follow Fairey onto rooftops. “In many ways, he was not just a filmer, he was he was kind of an accomplice. I don’t know if he was passionate or if he was passionate and kind of crazy. Um, I respect passion.”
However you parse Thierry’s enthusiasm, he parlays it into an encounter and eventual relationship with Banksy, who maintains his infamous “mystery” by insisting Thierry shoot only his hands at work and obscure his face. As Banksy’s own career changes course (a onetime “provincial graffiti artist,” his “DIY art shows,” in galleries and online, “are now taking vandalism in an entirely new direction,” Ifans notes helpfully). Thierry documents one of the murdered phone booth outings, as well as Banksy’s “stunt,” when he installed a figure of a Guantánamo Bay detainee at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland.
These and other exploits showcase one of Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s most valuable functions, its documentation and narration of at least some of Banksy’s own excellent career. These examples of street art’s most effective political provocations — examples of seeming “real power” — are lined up next to Thierry’s next steps, specifically, what happens when he takes up street art himself, as Mr. Brainwash. And here the movie takes yet another turn, an investigation of art and politics, galleries and value, repetition and meaning.
Exit Through the Gift Shop mounts what seems a critique of Thierry’s insta-celebrity and status as artist, helped along by an admiring LA Weekly cover story. It’s not entirely clear where and how the film assesses Thierry per se, the “art world” as incestuous, self-perpetuating business, or even Banksy as worldwide phenomenon. This elusiveness makes the movie yet another act of street art, self-promotion and repetition and maybe even original invention all at once. What does it mean? “I don’t know what it means,” Bansky says, his unseeable face turned down as if in deep thought. “Maybe Thierry was a genius all along, maybe he got a bit lucky. Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke.” Or not.