May 04, 2010

I saw the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop a few weeks back. It's a film by Banksy, one of the most popular street artists around today. His work is pretty intriguing and this film is no exception.

On the surface the film is about the rise of street art and, even more so, it's also about a man called Thierry Guetta. Some may know Thierry better as the street inspired artist, Mr. Brainwash. The film shows us how Thierry turned into Mr. Brainwash.

Thierry Guetta is an interesting character and that's really putting it very lightly. Right from the beginning of the film we learn about Guetta's undying habit of filming everything. EVERYTHING! The guy would just walk around with the video camera on at all times. It was his attempt to try and capture life because, as we all know, life is fleeting. Thierry Guetta's solution to the problem was to get it on tape. Tapes that eventually filled a whole room in his house, none of them labeled or organized.

Guetta found himself in the right place at the right time when he started to meet many emerging street artists. Guetta followed any street artist he could, rarely asking for permission and always doing whatever it took to get the best shot. Street art is not something that lasts very long. You can put up a graffiti piece in the middle of the night and it might not even get to see the light of a full day. This is where Guetta's obsessive filming came into play, because of him these artists could now have their work forever remembered on film. Guetta tried to follow everyone he could, he even rode alongside the now famous Shepard Fairey, of OBEY fame, for a while.

Without summarizing the whole film for you, Guetta ends up becoming a street artist himself, under the name Mr. Brainwash. He is heavily inspired by Banksy and Andy Warhol. Some have criticized his works as being "unoriginal". He works out of a studio where his employees often create the works he describes to them. He produces a massive collection of artwork in a very short time and opens his first art show, something other artists took years to really build a collection they truly believed in. And this is where the other aspect of the film comes in...

The film questions the idea of what we see as art. What is original art? Why are certain people seen as "stealing" or "copying" while others are "original"? This seems to be one of the more deeper discussions going on in the film. Many of the street artists that Guerra filmed, including and especially Shepard Fairey, utilize preexisting images which are slightly altered.

In the title credits, one of my favorite street artists, Kaws, is quickly shown. He is known for taking famous cartoon characters and slightly altering them in his own way. His clothing brand is entitled OriginalFake, which to me says something about this very notion of "originality".

Why would someone look at Mr. Brainwash and call him a fake while Kaws or Shepard Fairey are original artists? Is Mr. Brainwash a genius are a complete buffoon, at the end of the film Banksy leaves that up for discussion. If everyone is inspired from something and taking from those things then where does the line draw between original and unoriginal?

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