Note from RJ: The following post by Alison Young was originally published on her blog, Images to Live By. We at Vandalog would like to thank Alison for kindly allowing us to republish it here, along with part I of the review (posted yesterday).
Since the previous post, about expectations of what Exit Through the Gift Shop is about, turned out to be a long one, I thought I’d write a separate one dealing with what it’s not about.
So let’s go back to the second response that a lot of people seemed to have after seeing the movie – a feeling of surprise that it’s not ‘about’ Banksy, or at least not as much as they had expected.
It’s worth looking at this closely. Is the film ‘about’ Banksy? Well, the film is made by him, and thus it provides us with a text which tells us something about the artists and his concerns, just as his artworks, books and exhibitions do.
And then again, Banksy is in the movie: we see him in his studio; we see him stencilling; we see him with his crew of helpers creating the famous ‘vandalized telephone box’ in London (which goes on to sell for an extraordinary sum at auction); we see him installing a blow-up doll, hooded, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit, at Disneyland, in a direct juxtaposition of American mass entertainment culture with the torture of detainees at Guantanamo. (All of these occurrences are filmed by Guetta.)
But of course, while all of these events are taking place, Banksy still withholds himself from any kind of identifying gaze – he wears the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, his face is blanked by pixillation, his voice distorted (and his assistants’ identities are similarly masked).
So Banksy’s certainly in the movie, but he’s simultaneously on display and hidden from our view. But what we do see in plain sight are his stencils and his hands: as Banksy himself states in the film, ‘I told Thierry he could film my hands but only from behind’.
As he says these words in voice-over, the film shows us Banksy at work, cutting stencils (for one of his signature rats, to be put up on a wall in LA). And for me, that was one of the highlights of the film – watching those hands, whether at work on the stencil or gesturing along with the words spoken by Banksy’s distorted voice.
They’re slender hands, with long fingers. They’re the hands of an artist. What does the face matter, or the voice? Watch the film – and watch out for the scene of Banksy cutting stencils, with speed, and with great skill. That moment might not be central to the film, but it’s certainly what street art is all about.
Note from RJ: The following post by Alison Young was originally published on her blog, Images to Live By. We at Vandalog would like to thank Alison for kindly allowing us to republish it here, along with part II of the review (coming tomorrow).
I’m in New York City right now, and last night I attended a preview screening of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film is being released in a number of US cities from April 16th and if you click here you can find a list of release dates, cities and theaters. (If you’re reading this in Britain, the film’s been out for a few weeks; if you’re reading this in Australia, be patient a little longer because the film will be released there in early June.)
Given the intense interest in Banksy as an artist and in the mystery of his identity, it’s inevitable that this film will attract a lot of attention. What’s as interesting as the movie itself is the range of responses that people are having to the film. Among those who’ve seen it so far, people speak positively of the film (as they should, since it’s a highly enjoyable documentary), but they also seem, first of all, surprised that it is more about Mr Brainwash (aka MBW aka Thierry Guetta) than it is about Banksy; and, second, disappointed that, because the film is more about Mr Brainwash, Banksy doesn’t reveal much of himself in the movie.
Let’s start with the first of those reactions, that the film’s not ‘about’ Banksy, which certainly raises the question of what the film is about. Well, the film operates on many different levels, and one of its main ones is the story of how street art took off, from being something with an intense local significance which was shared through the networks of the global street art community for the enjoyment of those who practice or appreciate street art, to became an entrenched part of the mainstream art world, whereby paintings (and artists) are commodified for profit.
To tell that story, the film focuses on Thierry Guetta’s transformation from amateur film-maker into artworld succes du jour, as a means of demonstrating both the possibilities open to anyone with the will to put up art and the (slightly frightening) logical consequences of those possibilities (for example, having people queueing for hours to get into your art show, simply because they’ve been told by the media that your art is important).
The film treads a clever and careful line between condoning and critiquing the commercialization of street art, as its embodied in Guetta’s transformation: it really is left up to the viewer to work out where you stand on the issue. In some ways, the film seems to be criticizing the people who have bought Mr Brainwash’s work for vast sums of money and who have contributed to his art world stardom, but, then again, isn’t this the same art world that has made stars of Shepard Fairey and Banksy and Blek le Rat? If we want to critique the art world, it must be a critique that can specify why Mr Brainwash’s stardom is problematic when that of the others is not.
So: how do we think through that problem? Is it because Mr Brainwash doesn’t make all of his art himself? Neither does Shepard Fairey nowadays, nor Banksy (both of whom have assistants – and we see some of Banksy’s assistants at work in the film), and neither does Jeff Koons, for that matter. Is it because Mr Brainwash’s work is derivative (his work repeats many of the devices used by Andy Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, Nick Walker, Blek…)? Well, that might be a better founded criticism, but it still requires us to think through its implications: each of those artists borrow from other artists and art movements, re-presenting certain tropes in order to create a new art idiom. Perhaps Mr Brainwash’s endless borrowing (what some would even call plagiarism) from the borrowers lacks aesthetic merit because it does nothing new – no new idiom emerges from his pillaging of pop culture and street art.
At any rate, I think these issues form the heart of what the film is about – and I’d back this up by referring you to the movie’s title. By calling his film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop‘, Banksy is both having a sly dig at museum culture, which often cynically seeks to extract more money from visitors after they have viewed an exhibit, but he is also pointing out to us the direction that street art may be heading in, now that its commercialization is so advanced – the only ‘exit’ is to find a way through the endless consumption offered to us as a poor substitute for the art itself.
Hi there, my name is Alison Young, and I write Images to Live By, a blog about street art. I’m also an academic at the University of Melbourne, and I’m in middle of writing a book about street art and street artists in a number of cities around the world. Thanks, RJ, for inviting me to do a guest post for Vandalog.
So I’m based in Melbourne, Australia, where there is a huge and diverse street art scene. RJ suggested that it might be interesting for Vandalog readers if I could write about street art in Australia… There’s way too much to cover in one or two posts, but I can certainly introduce people to some of the most interesting artists here at the moment.
One of these is Meggs. I’ve written a little bit on Images to Live By about Meggs, because there are many resonances between his work and that of the British artist D*Face and the Australian artist now living in New York, Anthony Lister, both of whom may be better known to you than Meggs. All three of those artists are interested in the connections between superheroes, masculinity, money and popular culture, and all three use their media to re-present comic strip figures as being in crisis or under stress (click here if you want to read more about this and here for a link to Meggs’s website for more info about his work).
Up till now, Meggs has probably not been too well known outside Australia, but folks in LA are about to get an opportunity to see his work, in a show entitled ‘Crime and Charity’ at Cerasoli Gallery in Culver City.
Here’s a brief description from the gallery about the show:
“In 2007 Australia’s Victorian State Government passed the ‘Graffiti Prevention Act’. This legislation extended the government’s zero tolerance approach to Graffiti and provided police new authority to search any person, vehicle or object they suspect to possess a graffiti implement, within close proximity of public transport.
Ironically, this legislation was passed while Tourism Victoria was using Graffiti and street art to promote Melbourne Tourism on television and web advertisements. Melbourne’s laneways are a big drawcard for tourism and it is undeniable that the diverse artwork is part of the city’s broader cultural appeal.
Graffiti and street art will never disappear. Despite the State Government’s negativity, there are well documented social contributions and benefits provided by many artists, cultural tourism being one. Unfortunately these are only recognised when it is conveniently leveraged for commercial gain.
‘Crime & Charity’ depicts the frustration Meggs feels in the face of this hypocrisy. The characters depicted in his artwork are hybrids of guilt and innocence, both frustrated and persecuted for being part of a culture that is simultaneously celebrated and condemned.”
The work of Melbourne-based artists Ghostpatrol and Miso is very different from that of Meggs, but just as Meggs’s work has been a huge part of making Melbourne’s street art scene what it is today (Meggs is part of the Everfresh crew, famous for putting up all over the city’s buildings), so has that of Miso and Ghospatrol. These two artists have worked in galleries and on the streets for the last several years. Their work primarily uses the skills of drawing and cutting: they create meticulously drawn figures often reminiscent of childhood fairytales. These are sometimes drawn onto unusual surfaces, like a row of pencils (Ghostpatrol, click on this link and scroll down to see some examples) or painted on to a wall like this:
Miso creates beautiful paste-ups, with intricate cut-out sections, on to a wall or a flat piece of wood. Her work sometimes reminds people of the images made by Swoon and Elbow Toe, but I think there are also really interesting evocations of fin-de-siecle artists like Egon Schiele in the magnificently textured images: have a look at Miso’s website for some images of her work.
Ghostpatrol and Miso work both individually and together, and have made paste-ups from photographs of themselves wearing fox masks to disguise their identities – hundreds of these paste-ups appeared around certain areas of Melbourne for a while, a wonderful expression of the street artist as fox (a creature of cunning and stealth which visits the city at night).
From foxes to bushrangers: one of the most famous figures in Australian history and iconography is the bushranger Ned Kelly, a 19th century outlaw figure hunted and eventually hanged by the Melbourne authorities. The artist Ha Ha (also known as Regan Tamanui) has said, ‘Street artists are the bushrangers of the 21st century’, because of the challenge to authority represented by illicit street art. Ha Ha’s work has been hugely important in defining the nature of street art in Melbourne, especially in the early 2000s, thanks to the prevalence of his stencils all over the city. Check out his website to get a sense of his work. He has a particular fondness for robot figures, but he is also interested in celebrity and notoriety:
In this image you can see a portrait stencilled behind the bars over a section of the wall in this laneway (Hosier Lane). The face is that of Mario Condello, an individual thought to be involved in Melbourne’s gangland wars, and who is represented here by Ha Ha in the same way that he stencilled his famous portrait of that other outlaw, Ned Kelly:
I’ll end by going back to where I started, with Meggs’s show in LA, which draws attention to the paradox of the state government here creating harsh new laws against graffiti and street art at the same time as it seeks to make money out of it by using images of street art in its tourism ads. All of the artists I’ve mentioned risk these penalties every time they put up on the street, as is the case in most countries of course. But as you can see from the way that these Australian artists are representing themselves – as struggling superheroes, as foxes and outlaws – we are being given these fantastic images at a high cost: the weight of illegality upon the artists.