Banksy's first film Exit Through The Gift Shop underlines his status as a subversive in a long and honourable British tradition.
By Mark Hudson
Published: 3:28PM GMT 01 Mar 2010
When a bent and elongated telephone box appears in a London alley with a pickaxe in its side, everyone knows what’s going on. As French film-maker Thierry Guetta approaches the little crowd of onlookers, they tell him that this work — installation, event, action or whatever you want to call it — is by Banksy, “a graffiti artist. A good one”. There’s a sense of pride among these very ordinary people, most of them on their way to work, not only at being able to point out this bold, chutzpah-laden, but above all British cultural gesture to a foreign visitor, but at the fact that they are in on the story.
This scene plays out in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s first feature film, which opens next week. Has any artist (and I suppose we must call him an artist) changed the public perception of his art form (and I suppose we must call it an art form) quite the way Banksy has? It isn’t long since graffiti or street artists were seen as just one step above muggers and drugpushers: dragging down whole areas with their mindless, moronic “tagging”. Now, the proximity of a good piece of “street art” can positively enhance the value of a property.
We’ve got a Banksy in the area of north London where I live, a life-size figure of Charles Manson as a hitchhiker, standing at a particularly charmless traffic intersection, and it’s generally seen as one of the better reasons to live in our unloved inner-city neighbourhood.
The mystery man of British street art isn’t moving towards becoming a national treasure — he already is one. Having earned respect with a succession of daring gestures — from installing his own paintings in the National Gallery to risking bullets as he painted on the Israeli West Bank barrier — Banksy now enjoys enormous popular approval. Of the people consulted, 97 per cent elected that a Banksy image of a hanged man should remain on a prominent wall in Bristol. The details of his anti-capitalist politics appear irrelevant. Even an arguably cynical move into gallery art doesn’t seem to have harmed the standing of this Robin Hood of the spraycan.
I’m in a soot-encrusted vault deep beneath Waterloo station, with the juddering of trains reverberating from far overhead and dubby music drifting through the murky space. The place has been converted into the semblance of a cinema, yet the atmosphere isn’t, it has to be said, remotely edgy. The music, the post-industrial location, the sculptures dotted about the place, including a simulated bonfire of old master paintings, all contribute to the sense of a Banksy-branded ambience. There will even be a red carpet, celebrity screening.
Yet if the film’s beginning — a montage of frantically aerosolling kids overlain by Richard Hawley’s Sixties-flavoured The Streets Are Ours — suggests we may be in for a Summer Holiday for the graffiti age, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn’t make things entirely easy for the viewer.
Just as Banksy’s art plays artfully with trompe-l’oeil, a method of painting that creates the illusion of a three-dimensional object, so his film tries to play similar games with film narrative. Appearing mostly as a hooded silhouette, though even electronic treatment can’t hide his homely West Country accent, Banksy explains that having been approached by someone wanting to make a film about him, he thought it would be more interesting to make a film about the film-maker.
What follows purports to be a documentary about Banksy and the street art world, made by the Los Angeles-based Frenchman Guetta, which gradually transforms itself into a documentary about Guetta made by Banksy, in which Guetta attempts to turn himself into a Banksyesque art world manipulator under the name of Mr Brainwash.
The film cleverly leaves you wondering whether Guetta is borderline insane or simply a Banksy associate playing a role — or if he even exists at all. As another Banksy associate says of Guetta’s climactic LA show: “It’s difficult to tell who the joke is on, or if there even is one.” More interesting than this, however, is the light the film throws on the graffiti world in general and Banksy’s operation in particular. Artists such as superstar American Shepard Fairey, creator of the already iconic Obama Hope poster, Guetta’s cousin, Invader, and the wonderfully named Buff Monster come across as highly disciplined risk-takers, hanging onto their political ideals as they move into more lucrative mainstream media.
That Banksy has been able to conceal his identity to the extent that he has seems all the more remarkable when you see the scale of the quasi-industrial operation behind him. A team of assistants produce the intricate stencils with which his images are applied to walls. That bent phone box was driven to its location on a flatbed lorry. The great graffiti outlaw actually employs a head of PR and security. But then the fact that a newspaper story, giving the artist’s name, parentage and a succession of addresses, has largely been ignored shows the extent of the public’s desire to participate in the myth.
While we think of the terms graffiti and street art as interchangeable, for those involved in them these spheres are worlds apart. Having emerged through Bristol’s graffiti scene, a world closely related to hip hop, in which the visibility of the “tag” or graphic signature is all, Banksy gradually moved into the more aesthetically orientated and politically overt area of street art, which has roots in European counterculture going back to May 1968. It’s a move that can be seen almost as a change in social class.
While Banksy’s stark monochrome stencilled imagery is heavily influenced by French artist Blek le Rat, his genius has been to add an element of oblique and quintessentially British humour that gives his work an appeal far beyond those who simply agree with his views — not only in Britain, but across Europe and the United States.
The parallels between Banksy’s film and the mockumentaries of Sacha Baron Cohen are strong. Both represent a quirky, ambiguous, satirical humour in which nothing is fully spelt out, which is seen abroad as peculiarly British. And judging from the euphoric response to the Banksy film at the recent Berlin Film Festival, this is something the rest of the world wants, particularly when it’s delivered with the kind of pop savvy that has been a hallmark of British culture from the Beatles to Damien Hirst. The question of whether Thierry Guetta exists is as irrelevant as Banksy’s real identity: it’s the way the story’s told that matters, rather than the reality behind it.
Yet subversive as this humour is, and it’s felt in everything from Alice in Wonderland to Monty Python, it is a mediating force in British society, a way of letting off psychic steam. Banksy’s art is conciliatory rather than truly anarchic. His now iconic image of a demonstrator throwing a bunch of flowers rather than a Molotov cocktail may have been intended with a degree of irony, yet it is in essence “true”.
But before we canonise Banksy as some kind of Alan Bennett of the aerosol can, his work — and it’s his street art rather than his gallery art for which he’ll be remembered — does still involve real risk.
In what is perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence, Banksy and Guetta install the figure of a hooded Guantánamo Bay detainee inside Disneyland, resulting in the Frenchman being detained for four hours. They didn’t apply for an Arts Council grant to do this. They didn’t summon a curator to justify it with pompous waffle. No one is culturally blackmailed into liking Banksy’s work the way they are with most so-called contemporary art.
In a world where we are bombarded in our public spaces with advertising messages, Banksy’s images provide another view – one that is funny, provocative, yet far from doctrinaire. While he would no doubt recoil at the idea, Banksy has inadvertently persuaded Middle Britain that the real vandals in our society are the people who erect hideous monstrosities without public consultation, not some bloke who paints pictures on the walls.
'Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is released on Friday