Whether you believe Exit through the Gift Shop to be a genuine documentary or a hoax, the character study of Thierry Guetta, or as he is more commonly known Mr. Brainwash, is an intriguing one. Exit through the Gift Shop, more than just a character study, captures of a collapse of a counter-culture. We witness the rise and fall of the street art movement, seen through the eyes of Thierry.
In the short period of time that he has been a professional artist, Thierry has held two solo exhibitions as well as designing the cover for Madonna’s Celebration album, and has made a small fortune selling his art work. Prior to emerging on the international art scene, Thierry was a street artist,, and before that a filmmaker.
Chronicling his life and narrated by actor Rhys Ifans, Exit through the Gift Shop explains how Thierry was kept from his mother by his family, seemingly for his own protection, as her health failed and she eventually died. Thierry’s absence during his mother’s death had a profound effect on him, and when he was an adult every waking minute of his life, and the life of his wife and children. During this time and by chance, his cousin- a street artist known as space invader- allowed Thierry to follow him around Paris, filming him create his art. Thierry’s obsession with recording life soon turned to recording street artists at work. Through a series of chance encounters and connections, Thierry was able to record many key street artists all around the world, and eventually he was even able to record the elusive Banksy. Thierry accomplished this with his child like charm, and the promise of a documentary being made about the street art movement. He and Banksy soon became friends and Thierry recorded his notorious stunts and work. After Banksy’s recommendation to start creating his own street art, Thierry covered Los Angeles with his own work. Thierry renamed himself Mr. Brainwash and started work on an exhibition.
Creating prints and silkscreen’s soon became Thierry’s new obsession which he manufactured on factory belt intensity. Spending his life savings and remortgaging his house, Thierry spent every dollar he had on a solo exhibition for his prints, installations and paintings. With a positive review in the New York Post and Banksy’s and Fairey’s names attached to the show, Mr. Brainwash became a massive success both critically and financially. Thierry had bought his way into the contemporary art community and more than anyone else it seems, Banksy felt responsible and troubled by his own creation. Banksy and other street artists filmed by Thierry, had been duped. Not only was Thierry not the documentary film maker he claimed to be, but he was the personification of the things that street art seemed to rebel against.
Thierry’s production is similar to Andy Warhol’s, although Warhol used industrial methods to create art, the meaning of the art was reflected in the production- mass produced art reflecting mass produced culture. The mass produced art that Mr. Brainwash is creating seems to be without this meaning. It is also on a larger scale than even Andy Warhol, whose factory like art studio was well known for. His art seems to be a clash of opposing ideas and styles- part Andy Warhol, part street art, but fully unable to satisfy; His repeatedly produced iconic prints of celebrities are mass produced on such a level that they are devoid of meaning. Thierry’s work seems to be no more than the Frankenstein’s monster of Thierry’s inspiration.
Mr. Brainwash hails the end of this counter-culture movement, as the creation and rise of Mr. Brainwash could only have been accomplished in a post street art world. Mr. Brainwash is the direct result of the street art movement. He somewhat paradoxically, combines street art with the consumption of mass culture. Street art in itself is not supposed to be everlasting, some only exist for a number of hours, now that it is being exhibited in galleries, it is preserved and protected, catering for a different audience that is not the ‘everyday person’. Without Banksy there would be no Mr. Brainwash, this could explain why Banksy has made a documentary and why he has tried to debunk Mr. Brainwash as an artist. No longer is Banksy artwork looked upon by the ‘every person’, rather, the viewer who visits galleries and exhibitions. The film not only seems to be debunking Mr. Brainwash as a modern artist but reasserting Banksy as one.
The street art counter-culture has to become the mainstream-culture, To significantly continue, it has to expand, and become commercially viable to attract a wider demographic, but by expanding it collapses as it is no longer the alternative. Once counter-culture has become the mainstream-culture it has failed. Like the Ouroboros symbol of a serpent engulfing its own tail, the cyclicality fate of counter-culture is a repeating pattern in history. Counter culture is born from mainstream-culture, as without mainstream culture there would be nothing to rebel against, to sustain itself as a movement it must become more like the mainstream-culture, and like the Ouroboros it must eventually become the mainstream culture.