Exit Through the Gift Shop’ explores how art becomes commodity, or maybe it’s performance art

When my son, Zachary, was about 12, we visited Memphis. At that city’s most important holy site, I bought Graceland Platinum Tour tickets, which took us not only through the mansion and its grounds, but also the “Elvis Lives in Hollywood” exhibit, Elvis’ Automobile Museum, the “Elvis Presley: Fashion King” exhibit, Elvis’ two custom airplanes and other consecrated areas.

As we left our third stop on the platinum pilgrimage, Zachary asked, “Mom, have you noticed that each time we leave an exhibit, we have to exit through a gift shop?” Since that first obviously gifted-child recognition of commodification in a consumer culture, he and I have shared many such exits, which are really, in the existential sense, no exits, but rather gateways to the inauthentic.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the film, has several layers to its story, both behind and in front of the camera. Those layers make it the deliciously funny, visually exciting, smart work it is and prove again that documentaries can be as entertaining as fictional films. This one has an engaging plot, compelling characters aplenty and, most importantly, fascinating ideas made flesh.

The film screens Friday to Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

“Exit” exists because amateur videographer Thierry Guetta, who runs a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles with his wife, becomes obsessed with street artists. He spends countless hours shooting footage of their work, them at work and them talking about their work.

The biggest “get” in street art is, of course, is British graffiti artist Banksy, who has built an international reputation not only on his pretty amazing art ” now sold in galleries for serious megabucks to serious art collectors ” but also for trying his damnedest never to be photographed. Anonymity makes good sense for someone engaged in a criminal activity, as well as a superb marketing ploy.

Guetta ultimately convinces Banksy ” face blurred by the infamous fuzzy dots and voice mechanically distorted ” to participate. Then, Banksy, whose name rhymes with “pranksy” and references money, discovers Guetta has boxes filled with thousands of hours and tens of thousands of feet of completely disorganized footage of major street artists, among them Shepard Fairey of the iconic Obama poster, and Space Invader, Guetta’s cousin.

Banksy suggests that Guetta make a real film about the phenomenon of street art, rather than just allowing his amazing treasure trove of images to rot in boxes. Guetta tries. What he produces is so bad that Banksy ” in the mother of all meta-moves ” turns the tables to make a meta-movie. He convinces Guetta that he should turn his passion for street art into making street art. Banksy becomes the director of the film and Guetta, after choosing the name Mr. Brain Wash, its star artist.

What unfolds as Banksy films Guetta in action and, in a weird inversion of the traditional talking-head documentary convention, his fuzzed-out face talking about Guetta, is witty and wise.

Street art is supposed to be, of course, subversive. It defiantly takes art from the inner walls of museums and homes of the wealthy, and makes canvases of the outer walls of buildings new and old, subway cars and anything else it pleases. No entry fees; no gift shops. Of course, seeing a potentially profitable product, the art establishment has worked to co-opt street art, just as Hollywood studios have worked to co-opt independent film. There’s nothing wrong with artists making money, of course. Unfortunately, the system makes the most of it and, generally, changes the art into clichéd commodity. This film explores that.

Just as there were those who believed “The Blair Witch Project” was a real documentary, there are those who have asserted that this film is not a real documentary. They think it might be a mockumentary, a Banksy trick from start to finish. It’s much smarter than that, I think: It’s a real documentary talking about what making a documentary means as much as it’s talking about what art means.

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine your last museum visit. See the exhibitions. Then see the satellite gift shops placed at the exits from each of those exhibitions. Graceland and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have more in common than might at first be thought.

Gasoline to drive through the Southern states? About 80 cents a gallon. Platinum Tour tickets? About $30 each. That Elvis shot glass Zachary got for his collection? About $3.

“Exit Through the Gift Shop”? You know. “Kathryn Jenson White

Kathryn Jenson White

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