Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No Exit: Banksy's Inescapable Charade (Film review) by Alison Ross

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Reviewed by Alison Ross

The ingenuity of Banksy's street art has always been in its not-so-surreptitious ploy to provoke radical thought, which one hopes will eventually germinate into action. That, paired with his sometimes incongruous placement of said street art. For example, the juxtaposition of a blow-up doll, hooded and attired in a Guantanamo Bay prisoner jumpsuit, with its location, the grounds of Disney World, is, to be sure, an audacious statement about our maddeningly misplaced priorities. We prefer to revel in the confectionary comforts of a cartoonish cosmos rather than confront the rank reality of tortured humans, Banksy is saying, and so he seeks to subvert our submersion in the syrupy surreal with a rude injection of terrifying truth.

Of course, there were also the infamous trompe d’oeil images adorning the Israel-Palestinian wall. Among the images was one that projected the illusion that a giant hole had been blasted through the wall, offering a glorious glimpse of sunlight. Naturally, the images, with their iconic evocations of freedom, intended to illustrate the stark disparity between the humiliating ghettoization of the Palestinians and true, humanizing happiness.

Banksy has perpetrated many more such brazen street art political acts, of course, in his native London as well as abroad, all imagery imbued with satirical import aimed toward jolting the muddled masses out of their shared soporific stupor.

And now Banksy has brought his relentless roguishness to the big screen. This time, his aim is to shake up our complacency toward the rampant commercialization of art. His medium is documentary film, though we can never been sure that his film is, indeed, a genuine documentary. And therein lies the mischievous genius of Banksy's cinematic rendering.

The protagonist in Exit Through the Gift Shop is a French thrift-store owner who lives in LA. He is besotted with street art and Banksy in particular, so he seeks to make a film about him. The problem is, Thierry Guetta, the thrift-store owner, cannot, ultimately, capably execute such a daunting task. And so Banksy attempts to take over. But instead of finishing the film about himself, Banksy ends up making a entirely different movie: one centered on the meteoric rise of Mister Brainwash, Guetta's street art alter ego.

Except that Guetta has no authentic artistic talent. His "art" is merely an absurd mishmash of street art iconography and Warholian sensibility. And he inexplicably vaults over a crucial step in art-world ascendancy, that of honing his craft first, while suffering existentially before finally "making it."

Mister Brainwash mounts a massive show in LA, and the legions flock to bask in his sudden fame. The denizens of LA, after all, compulsively chase the Next Big Thing.

There is a tasty irony, of course, in the fact that Mister Brainwash's work is reminiscent of the very artist whose trademark quote about the ephemerality of fame is frequently invoked in our star-obsessed society.

The thing is, we can never be sure if Mister Brainwash is "real" and whether the art show is staged for cinema, staged for the gullibly superficial LA poseurs, or both.

Either way, Banksy, whose face is shrouded in shadow and whose voice is shrouded in effects throughout the movie, is clearly asserting an anti-commercialization bias with his perversely fascinating focus on Mister Brainwash. Guetta's impetuous turn toward art and his bemusing surge toward art-world celebrity and fortune despite his embarrassing lack of artistic acumen is a humbling indictment of our blind complacency regarding substance in creative endeavors.

We are all being had, Banksy is saying, by charlatans and poseurs... and we are even being had by his movie, a fact which doubly condemns us as dumber than dumb, since we obviously need to be told what to believe.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is the cinematic analog to Banksy's street art: a cloying ploy to dramatically dissemble our attitudes of lazy indifference toward all that is true and beautiful.

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