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The murky world of street art & the people behind it

June 16, 2010

Beginning in the 1980s, a new youth counter culture (every generation has one) emerged that was based on using unadorned walls of urban blight as canvasses for a new generation of artists. Throughout the last three decades, the essence and form of street art (a hybrid form of graffiti incorporating posters and other types of visual imagery) continues to evolve as shadowy men lurking furtively at night refashion cities in their mold with nothing but mere cans of spray paint and plaster. Who are the mysterious people behind such provocative public statements of self expression? A fascinating, highly acclaimed, self-described ‘prankumentary’ entitled ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ I saw three days ago at the cinema takes us, the pedestrians, behind the scenes for an insider’s look at this much maligned though little understood underground art world. The prank includes an unexpected plot twist at the end of the film that jives with its zany subjects. The story seems to be about a quirky, 30 something, Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children. Thierry runs a thriving urban-funk clothing boutique that caters to the City of Angels’ eclectic fashionistas; whose stylish garments blend hip hop and punk rock, b-ball and skateboards. Yet Thierry also has an unusual obsession: he meticulously videotapes the mundaneness of his life with excruciating detail, a habit he describes through on-screen interviews arose during his adolescence in France after his mother’s untimely death instilled in him a profound sense of preserving the present by documenting the cherished yet fleeting memories of our unpredictable, short lives. During a routine vacation to France to visit his family in 1999, Thierry makes contact with his young cousin, the aspiring graffiti artist Space Invader who blankets Paris with his signature hand-crafted, oversized mosaics of pixellated characters from this legendary video game of the 1970s. Thierry is instantly intrigued by the cunningness and virtuosity of Space Invader’s escapades to spread his peculiar artistic vision so much so that he decides to shadow him, camera in tow, and record the artist at work (taking care to keep the artist’s identity private at all times). The process of being filmed on camera defacing public property is scandalous, yet Space Invader relents, acknowledging that the impermanence of his work (cities the world over aggressively work to expunge this ‘vandalist’ public defacement) necessitates that it be chronicled for dissemination on the nascent world wide web (this, you must recall, is still the early 2000s). This seminal experience launches Thierry into his new role, his raison d’etre, as video documenter of some of the world’s most notorious graffiti artists, a role that is tremendously enhanced during a serendipitous encounter at an LA Kinko’s when Thierry meets the then little-known Shepard Fairey, creator of the now ubiquitous Obey tags that show a caricature of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant, and more recently the iconic campaign image of Barack Obama with the words “Hope” boldly displayed. Thierry can hardly believe his good fortunes as he begins to accompany the infamous Fairey (who gradually develops a kinship with Thierry) around the world to disseminate his unusual, subversive message of civil disobedience. Eventually, Thierry learns of and becomes mesmerized by the most notorious graffiti artist of them all – Banksy – a famously secretive Briton whose identity is shrouded in mystery but whose work is sublime (an LA art exhibit draws the city’s glitterati to a small warehouse in a dilapidated part of town, all to irreverently pay homage to the mystique). As Thierry’s reputation among graffiti artists blossoms as a reliable and trustworthy accomplice, he is unexpectedly summoned by Banksy during his trip to LA to suggest appropriate venues (i.e. walls) for exhibition given Thierry’s familiarity with the city. Banksy’s colleagues are stunned to learn that their intensely private friend agrees to be filmed; yet even someone of Banksy’s stature can appreciate the immeasurable boost that his status can enjoy if more people had access to his fleeting work. Banksy also takes to the affable Thierry and has him accompany him to document his whacky projects, eventually encouraging Thierry to go it alone and start his own career. And this is where the story abruptly takes an unexpected twist. Thierry heeding Banksy’s advice and true to his enterprising self returns to LA, sells off his only means of livelihood (his garment boutique), and decides instead to single mindedly devote himself to becoming an established street artist under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash. After a few months of plastering LA’s walls with his trademark image of a man staring through a camera, the newly christened Mr. Brainwash boldly sets his sights on staging for himself a splashy debut art exhibition that turns out to be the talk of the town when it opens in the cavernous former CBS studios in the summer of 2008. As a shameless self-promoter, Mr. Brainwash enlists his former friends in the graffiti scene to endorse his work to drum up hype for the event. The show turns out to be a smashing success as thousands of Angelenos, piqued by all the press attention (the LA weekly features Mr. Brainwash on its cover), show up in droves to gain a glimpse into this mysterious and much-talked about new artist (who prior to this point is a but a blip in the wider underworld of street artists). Mr. Brainwash’s meteoric rise to stardom confounds Banksy and Shepard Fairey who both are aghast of their former colleague’s unexpectedly rapid intrusion into the world they once sat at the thrones of. Banksy is even more appalled since it was he who first set Thierry on this path and his subsequent support made him even more complicit (in other words, he was badly taken advantage of). A prevailing theme of this story is rooted in the quintessentially American, self-righteous individualist quest for glory that Thierry so resoundingly demonstrates. Not content to indefinitely play the role of the unknown and unheralded acolyte hidden behind the camera, Thierry’s smoldering but latent yearning for glory finally impels him to usurp the initiative and launch head first into the spotlight. The movie is also a damning portrayal of the mediocrity of today’s art world where any trite work concocted by an unskilled layman is heralded by the mainstream community as a profound statement of artistic self expression. It is no wonder that Thierry’s success was spawned in LA for in what other city is superficiality, uncouthness, and pretensions of high culture more plaintively embodied? In fairness to the genre, Banksy’s work is unique; imbued with a level of refinement and sophistication that clearly stands above the fray. Yet street graffiti is a medium that has a very thin, often times imperceptible, line separating grandness from the perfunctory that Mr. Brainwash makes manifest. Amusingly enough, it was Banksy who directed this film intending perhaps retribution: to publicly expose Mr. Brainwash as an impostor. ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’ further highlights the sobering reality of today’s attention-deficient society that finds its gratification in trivial, bland pseudo-art where any opportunist with the means to produce a visual image can become an overnight celebrity. That it took an industrious Frenchman, emanating from a grand artistic tradition and culture, to unmask the shallowness of today’s art world is a bitter irony indeed.

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One Comment
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