Exit Through the Gift Shop: Banksy's Latest Coup

06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What would cause the world's most elusive and most illustrious street artist to make a film with never before seen insights into his own life? To get back at a man who used his name and took advantage of his friendship of course. The art world is abuzz with the latest work from the genius that is Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop.While the film is not about Banksy, as the hype would have you believe, it's worth seeing for the rare footage into both Banksy's physical and mental studio.

To tell you straight off, you're not going to see Banksy in the film. You're going to see a hooded figure, face blurred and voice disguised, that may or may not be Banksy, embedding the narration with signature Banksy quips. The most revealing clue into who Banksy is, who some sources peg as Robin Gunningham, is a wedding ring on a male hand, shown when the artist is at work. And that Banksy has a team of assistants, any one of whom could have played Banksy in the film, to help produce the massive work. But trying to peg the identity of Banksy is of course not the point of the film.

What you are going to see is a giant art world hoax surrounding amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, turned amateur artist, Mister Brainwash. There's no information given on how involved Bansky was in the actual filmmaking, although by putting his name on the resulting work, it's clear he directed the narrative into a con story, a con named Mister Brainwash.

Thierry Guetta was a successful L.A. storekeeper who lived with a camcorder glued to his hand. After years of recording his day-to-day life, he stumbled upon something worth filming after visiting his cousin, the Atari-cum-mosaic inclined street artist Space Invader. He followed him for years, leading to his entry into the underground scene, filming the movement's multitude of stars: Swoon, Neckface, Poster Boy, Zevs, and Shepard Fairey. After failing to get any ins toward the most coveted subject of them all, Banksy, Guetta's luck changed when Fairey rang him up one day. Banksy was in L.A. and needed someone to show him around. Following his guidance into where to paint in L.A., Guetta gained Banksy's trust and friendship. As Banksy's entourage didn't contain a more worthy photographer, he began bringing Guetta into his more outlandish stunts, for posterity's sake, including the installation of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner inside Disneyland.

Meanwhile, Banksy was blowing up faster than anything the stale art market had seen of late, including having his removed street sculptures being sold at auction houses. He reached out to Guetta with the mission of telling the real meaning of the movement. He wanted his audience to know it wasn't about the hype or the money. The Street Art movement was about giving a dedicated artist a voice, transforming the streets into an accessible gallery for all the world to see. Banksy convinced Guetta to make his street art film, which had been for years sitting around as hundreds upon hundreds of tapes in shoe boxes. What Guetta ended up making was an unbearable, unending ADD montage of flashy advertorial images completely contradictory to the movement. Banksy realized Guetta was no filmmaker and suggested he go make some art instead.

But Banksy could never guess what Guetta would take from this. He put all of his money into building a giant studio, and hiring a team of designers and illustrators to produce prints in mass quantities. The result was a bank of copies of the street art predecessors' work he had followed so long, hackneyed images of pop icons as Marilyn Monroe, Warhol's Campbell's soup as a spray paint can, or Elvis Presley playing a toy gun. He skipped cutting his teeth on the streets or even honing his craft under an institution. Instead, Guetta, who had been given for years the secrets of the artists who entrusted them with their craft, co-opted their body of work into his own factory. But whereas Andy Warhol painted famous icons till they were meaningless, but still iconic, Guetta's new nom de plume, Mister Brainwash painted icons to the point where he "really made them meaningless," said Banksy.

Guetta booked an enormous, beautiful warehouse in L.A. with the goal of rivaling Banksy's own California debut "Barely Legal" (which featured a head-to-toe painted elephant and Brangelina buying out the house). But he had no idea how to put together a show. He hired more and more people to eventually bring his vision to life, and focused on the one thing he knew, PR. He asked Fairey to blog about the show and asked for a quote from Banksy, who provided it, thinking it'd do no harm. Guetta blew up the quote onto a billboard, and suddenly the city started paying attention to this unknown artist who was broadcasting Banksy's endorsement. His show earned the cover of the L.A. Weekly, leading to the an insanely well-attended opening that sold over $1 million in a week.

One can't help but cringe as Guetta carelessly assigns high prices onscreen to the manufactured art or compares himself to the likes of Banksy or Damien Hirst. Nothing leads to an art market crash faster than over-inflated prices, but then again, can you blame the artist? Mister Brainwash is fully on board with the film, and not coincidentally because of his latest New York show, where he's selling portraits for the likes of $200K to people who are buying on a gamble, and a very risky one at that.

What justifies another documentary about street art ten years after the movement broke, besides the Banksy name? Would there have been an easier way to out the fraud? Of course. But what do you do when you're Banksy? You one-up everyone. You turn the camera around, the camera that had taken advantage of your trust. With a title that pokes fun at the commercialization of art, can Banksy's new work ground us once again to feel the spirit of an art movement that takes on such exponential meaning in its natural habitat? One would assume that Banky's next move, to turn upside down the money and the hype of the movement, would be to focus more of the gallery work back onto the streets. But if we know Banksy, who is always two steps ahead of the game, it will be something well beyond this. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a must see to understand where our cultural affinities are headed and how we can steer them in the right direction.

Click through below to see exclusive images from the film featuring Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, and Mister Brainwash. Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in select cities April 16.