On a frequent drive on southbound Interstate 29 there used to be an overpass with a message. Spray-painted in giant shaky black letters it read: HELLO, BEAUTIFUL! In my memory anyway there was a proper comma separating the words. It was not near an exit and I never dared stop to take a picture, but I clocked it every time I passed under, wondering how someone painted it and why they would risk their neck putting it there.
Exit Through the Gift Shop starts with a montage that explains half of my wonderings. In grainy nightmode photography urban street artists jump, hang and rig platforms to add their wisdom and signature to hard-to-reach but easy-to-see places. Many fall and at least one escapes the cops with some athletic parkour that would make Buster Keaton proud. This is the world that Thierry Guetta falls into. An obsessive French immigrant in Los Angeles, Guetta videoed his world obsessively and eventually found notoriety filming the emerging street art scene. He brazenly recorded the rarely documented and often illegal techniques of luminaries of graffiti art like Shephard Fairey, Space Invader (his cousin) and eventually the most mysterious but highest-profile artist of realm, Banksy.
Banksy is the director of the film and sits for a silhouetted interview. The film was originally a project of Thierry’s, until he put together an unwatchable nightmare of a rough cut. Banksy finally took over, though the narration is done by Rhys Ifans, the better to give context to the looming presence of Banksy in the art world without him having to say it in his own electronically garbled voice.
But the moment the footage is handed over is also the catalyst of its biggest twist. In an effort to keep the ebullient Thierry off his back in the editing room, Banksy suggests the man spend some time on his own street art. The result is the creation of Guetta’s alter-ego, Mr. Brainwash. Mr. Brainwash is both a hack in the sense that he creates derivative and meaningless art, and also a hack into the art world that usually takes years of focused effort to break into. On the back of back-handed endorsements by Banksy and Fairey, Guetta opens with a massive show in an abandoned LA building. He hires artists to churn out his half-baked ideas, many of them thinly-veiled variations on Warhol and Fairey’s work. The show is breathtaking in its endless tackiness. Guetta makes around a million dollars in sales.
Exit Through the Gift Shop gathered critical acclaim, an Oscar nomination and a healthy amount of skepticism about its authenticity. When dealing with a film by a known trickster, calls of hoax are to be expected (see also: Penn Jillette and The Aristocrats). The response is predictable and a bit boring. In the case of Gift Shop, there’s a plethora of evidence proving the set-up more or less accurate – there is a real person named Thierry Guetta and records exist of his attempt at a street art documentary/art piece far predating Exit.
The circumstances as presented in the film seem unimpeachable, so the only question remains is whether Mr. Brainwash is “real” or if Guetta’s artistic side (or work) was actually created by Banksy. This is no longer a question of qualifying this as a documentary, but an investigation of method – where are Banksy’s hand most firmly on the controls? A decade later we’d get some extra data in the form of a second film by Banksy.
This short posted on Instagram documents the creation of Banksy’s Love is in the Bin, an artwork created in 2018 when his 2006 painting Girl with Balloon went up for auction. As soon as the gavel went down on the sale, a shredder hidden in the frame destroyed half the painting in front of shocked auction attendees. First, on a conceptual level we should appreciate how incredibly funny this is: a painting sold from previous owner to buyer – a transaction that offers no money to the original artist – destroys itself just after a price of 1.3 million dollars has been promised.
We should also acknowledge how unlikely this is to have happened in its ideal scenario. In the video we see the process of creating and inserting the shredding mechanism, which theoretically would have to be done long before the auction since the piece wasn’t created for auction. I’m no mechanical engineer, so I can’t speculate on the efficacy of the mechanism as shown (versus, say, a readily available factory-made shredder), but it seems unlikely that the extra heft and exit slot at the bottom wouldn’t attract the attention of the original buyer or the auction house The auction house Sotheby’s claimed no knowledge that this would happen, and we’ll have to take them at their word. But the seller at the auction remains anonymous, so it could easily be Banksy himself (or a cohort).
The film shows a propensity for the good old-fashioned trickery of editing. The gala shots may or may not contain snippets of real conversations, but they’ve at least been judiciously chosen for their high-brow snobbery signals (“More champagne?”) It’s already a gambit to have somebody filming the shredding live. The close-up shot of the button being pressed was certainly added later – why have the risk getting spotted with an additional camera pointed at the mid-section of the button-presser during the auction?
Exit Through the Gift Shop has been praised for revealing a prank on the art world, as Mr. Brainwash sells them a million dollars’ worth of pablum based on hype alone. That’s the story, and it’s a good one. And Banksy has well-placed burns on Guetta’s art: “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.” But he never says it isn’t art, and the film is more concerned with showing what is an isn’t the activity of an artist. Set up like Goofus and Gallant mirrors, the “real” artists work in warehouses accompanied by the sound of power tools, assembling insipid Mr. Brainwash works. Guetta fields questions from reporters and or talks self-importantly on the phone. But together they do make an art show, a half-shredded but nonetheless successful show.
As for Love is in the Bin, the prank malfunctioned a bit. As we see in the short video the full painting was supposed to be fed to the shredder but it stopped partway through (an old battery would lead some credibility to the early preparation aspect). As with Thierry Guetta, control is difficult. But in its present state certainly, or even in tatters, Banksy had to know that the story of the painting’s destruction would only increase its value. Both films point to the value of a “broken” work of art. In both cases Banksy is the artist and story is his medium, imbuing otherwise worthless objects with meaning and value.
HELLO [comma] BEAUTIFUL! Is gone, painted over no doubt by a state worker in an OSHA-approved safety harness. But the overpass message, like the shredded painting and Mr. Brainwash himself, all have a common quality of transcendent art that we can’t help but wonder at how it came to exist.