Exit past the cash register
Who, really, is Mister Brainwash?
28 June 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a wonderful documentary … or is it, perhaps, the birth of a new genre, the prankumentary?
If you haven’t seen it (and you should), here’s the premise. Thierry Guetta is a thirty-something French immigrant to the US who’s made a small fortune selling pre-loved clothes, at inflated prices, to trend-obsessed Los Angelinos. His interest in amateur video leads to him videoing his cousin, the semi-famous street artist Invader at work, and morphs into an 8-year obsession with recording the genre in the making. He’s introduced to other artists and the profits from his tat business finance his trips to record the best of the guerilla artists. Finally Guetta gets an entre to the biggest prize of all – the ultra-secretive Banksy. Guetta’s composure under interrogation, after being captured by security guards while videoing one of Banksy’s most famous stunts – leaving an orange-jumpsuited Guantanamo manikin in Disneyland – earns Banksy’s admiration.
The street artists believe that Guetta will eventually turn his countless hours of raw video into a documentary, but he seems incapable of it. Finally, under pressure, he comes up with a hopeless piece of sense-jangling rapid-fire art student junk. Banksy then volunteers to turn Guetta’s material into a comprehensible historic record and tells Guetta that what he really wants is to be a street artist himself, and he should give it a go.
So Banksy makes the doco and Guetta, calling himself Mr Brainwash (MBW) launches into the genre, but in a bigger way than anybody has hitherto attempted. He mortgages his house and hires a huge old studio complex and a raft of artists and technicians. Working to his instructions they churn out hundreds of Thierry Guetta originals. No professional art market types are involved , but aided by endorsements from Banksy and Shephard Fairey the show turns into a runaway success, with thousands queuing outside and more than a million dollars worth of art sold in the first week. The centrepiece is a 3D takeoff of Andy Warhol’s soup cans, only the can is a tomato spray can … street art … spray can … geddit?
Guetta’s stuff looks an awful lot like a pastiche of everybody else’s stuff (particularly Banksy’s), It’s competent, but as they say, “derivative”. WTF … we slave for years – the guerrilla art veterans mutter – dodging the cops, to grab a modicum of fame, and the village idiot comes along, imitates us, and makes a fortune.
So who, really, is Theirry Guetta? Is he what the movie purports him to be, an eccentric businessman turned artist, or is he a complete fiction – Banksy’s sly joke at the expense of the art-buying public? Let’s deconstruct it.
First, who, really, is Banksy? Thanks to a comprehensive investigation by the UK Daily Mail we can be 99 per cent certain that “the Scarlet Pimpernel of Modern Art”– is one Robin Gunningham, born in July 1973 to Peter and Pamela Gunningham, a middle-class couple from Bristol. Banksy started as a graffiti artist about 1983, left school at 16 and moved thereafter, frequently. Critically, he was always active in the same places where witnesses or official records locate Gunningham.
There are two photos that are believed to be of Banksy. One is virtually useless for identification purposes but the other is a rather good shot, taken in Jamaica in 2006, and published by the Daily Mail and at various places online. It shows a sunburned man with a distinctive hairline and slightly wavy chestnut hair. This photo virtually clinches the Gunningham identification because it bears a strong resemblance to Gunningham as he appears as a 16 year-old in a school class photo.
So who’s Theirry Guetta and does he really exist?
The obsessive tat shop owner is a neat cover story, but there’s a hole in it. If there really was a character as wonderful as Thierry Guetta, and if he really did have a shop beloved of Los Angeles trendies, the internet would by now be alive with Thierry stories, but there’s zip that I can find. It’s as though Sydney's iconic second-hand bookseller, Bob Gould, popped up, all unexpectedly, with a much-hyped art show, but none of his hundreds of thousands of friends, enemies, former employees or customers were impelled to tell a Bob Gould story on the web, or even remembered his shop.
Some theorise that Guetta is a profession actor. It’s even been suggested that he’s played by French singer and DJ David Guetta who is, coincidentally, a close associate of Madonna whose latest album cover was designed by none other than Mr Brainwash , but I’m intrigued by an even more subversive twist: Thierry Guetta is Banksy himself.
What could be more fun? Banksy cashes in on his carefully-maintained anonymity by playing a fictional second-hand clothes dealer who cashes in by imitating Banksy. Although it actually is Banksy’s work, the genuine street artists are nonplussed and the art critics sniff that Mr Brainwash’s stuff is somehow fake and inferior. Meanwhile, the public, on the basis of the hype generated by Banksy and his mates, snap it up anyway. How could a genius of subversion resist a ploy like that?