'Exit Through The Gift Shop': Art Damage, By Kurt Loder

The mysterious Banksy meets his match.

In his lengthy career as an international man of mystery, the English street artist who calls himself Banksy has evolved from a teenage spray-bomb guerrilla in his hometown of Bristol in the early 1990s to a worldwide art presence whose arresting works — stencils, silk-screens and sculptural provocations — are auctioned off at places like Sotheby's, for prices sometimes in excess of half a million dollars. He never shows his face, but he seems to be always in our face, installing his hit-and-run pieces in locations as far afield as Israel, Australia, even Disneyland. Some of his works have graced the hallowed walls of the Louvre in Paris and the Tate Britain gallery in London — but only because he sneakily hung them there himself. And who could forget his salting of U.K. record stores with reconfigured copies of a 2006 Paris Hilton album — the dead-on-arrival Paris — with such newly titled tracks as "Why Am I Famous?" and "What Am I For?" (The CD inside, all-instrumental, was recorded by Danger Mouse.)

Banksy is both a penetrating conceptual artist and a serious-minded joker, and with the release of his wild new documentary, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," you have to wonder how much longer he can remain an art-world phantom.

The film has a unique structure. It started out as a project by Thierry Guetta, a peculiar Frenchman living in Los Angeles, where he ran a vintage-clothing shop selling shamelessly overpriced apparel to the sort of hipsters who were happy to buy it. This, we later realize, was important preparation for his subsequent art-world adventures.

Guetta was also an obsessive videographer, training a cheap minicam on virtually everything in sight, from the contents of his fridge to — more tellingly — his own face as reflected in mirrors. On a trip to Paris, he was introduced to the world of street art by his cousin, an eminence in the scene known as Invader. Soon, Invader was taking Guetta along to shoot low-rez footage of him and other street artists in action. Returning home to L.A., Guetta connected with the well-known street-art entrepreneur Shepard Fairey (the man who created the famous "Hope" poster for the Obama presidential campaign). Before long, the little documentarian had infiltrated the L.A. street-art scene, his pain-in-the-ass qualities outweighed by his usefulness as a lookout and his willingness to do risky things in order to get his shots.

In 2006, Banksy quietly arrived in Los Angeles to mount a warehouse exhibition called "Barely Legal." In need of an assistant, he contacted Fairey, who recommended Guetta — who couldn't believe his luck. The exhibition was extravagantly successful — 30,000 people turned out, among them Jude Law, Christina Aguilera, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who purchased some pieces. Guetta, who had gone deep into hock to pursue his filming activities, was inspired by the amounts of money being made by an artist other than himself. Soon he persuaded Banksy to become the focus of the long-fermenting documentary he kept yammering about. Banksy agreed, as long as he was shot from behind, and only his hands were ever shown. "Maybe I needed to trust somebody," the artist says, in rueful retrospect.

In fact, Banksy says quite a bit in this film, in which he also appears. His voice is electronically obscured, and his face hidden in deep shadow, but his mordant observations set the tone for the whole strange story being told.

After eight years of obsessive shooting and editing, Guetta finally brought a rough cut of his documentary to England for Banksy's evaluation. The film was an incoherent mess. "It was at that point," Banksy says, "that I realized Thierry was not a filmmaker, and maybe he was just someone with a mental problem with a camera." The art star told his acolyte to forget filmmaking and return to L.A. and start doing his own art. As for his dismal footage, Banksy would hold onto that. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is the result of this inspired switcheroo — what started out as a documentary about an artist and a scene has been turned into a documentary about the oddball filmmaker ... and about the evergreen gullibility of the art world itself.

On returning to Los Angeles, Guetta created his first work — an image of himself holding a camera — which he stenciled onto walls all over the city. This gave him instant cultural presence. The rest of his oeuvre — silk screens of Michael Jackson in a blond wig, a series of spray-bomb cans bearing the Campbell's Soup logo — were heavily derivative of Andy Warhol, among other already-heavily-derivative artists. Nevertheless, Guetta — now calling himself "Mr. Brainwash" — decided to mount a huge exhibition of his work (most of it fabricated by other hands). He asked his former mentor to provide a promotional blurb, and Banksy responded with: "He's a force of nature, he's a phenomenon. And I don't mean that in a good way." Local media seized on this celebrity endorsement, however ambiguous, and very quickly turned Guetta into a star himself.

The exhibition was a near-disaster, and might have collapsed entirely had Banksy not dispatched some knowledgeable colleagues to help organize it. (Contemplating Guetta's organizational style, one assistant here says, "He's just kind of retarded.") Far from being humbled by the modest size of his creative talent, Guetta began tagging his works with Banksy-level sale prices. Who, we wonder as we watch, would pay such astonishing sums for this stuff? Who would pay anything at all?

The joke, of course, is on us in the end. And the picture, thick with revealing detail and appalling developments that pile up on each other like a succession of train wrecks, leaves us with much to ponder — not least the bafflingly unstoppable Thierry Guetta. "I always used to encourage everyone to make art," Banksy says from the shadows. "I don't do that so much anymore."

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Joneses" and "Kick-Ass," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Exit Through the Gift Shop."

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