Maybe it's usually true that you can't go home again, but I'll be damned if these guys didn't pick it up where they left it. It gave me faith in something. I don't know what, exactly, but it was there. Maybe it was proof that shows like this can be done, that they can be beyond just a walk down memory lane. It was far from a love-in, it wasn't "fun," and it wasn't a party—but who the hell ever said it had to be?
Zak Sallyis a cartoonist (Sammy the Mouse, Like a Dog), publisher (La Mano 21), and musician (Fear of Song).
A street artist and stuntster whose persona is defined by the absence of persona, Banksy went through the art-world looking glass a few years ago when his iconoclastic work became part of the excess he was skewering. He responded by making one of the debut films of the year, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a testament to his ambivalence about success and a perfectly calibrated response to the inquisitive furor surrounding his mystique.
How much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is "real" and how much is part of a larger punking of the documentary form is both a big part of the thematic picture and entirely beside the point. Taking a French Los Angeles resident and chronic documenter named Thierry Guetta as its central subject, the film arranges Thierry's footage of the street-art boom of the '90s and early '00s into a kind of brief history of the movement and its stars. When that history reaches the moment when people like Banksy and Shepard Fairey hit the big time, the film segues into the construction of Thierry himself as an art star, someone capitalizing on the frenzy for this new, "authentic" style. Big on cultural appropriation, non sequitur imagery, and antithetical iconic mash-ups, Banksy considers himself a "quality vandal," someone whose strikingly visual work (as opposed to that of high-concept wanksters like Damien Hirst) traffics not in empty provocation but a clear, if often ironic, engagement with issues like pollution and poverty. That his aesthetic is easily appropriated and exploited for commercial gain is part of Gift Shop's mordant self-reflexivity; anyone can do it, and anyone does.
Having satisfied the old "But is it art?" cranks—for better and worse—the main question now bound up in the artist's work is: "Who is Banksy?" Ubiquitous and unknown, maintaining his mystery while marking the walls of the world's cities with his work has secured for him, in these personality-peddling times, a Zorro-like legend. The director teases out that question by appearing in the film as a hooded cipher with a distorted voice before offering his heart-of-the-matter reply: Who isn't?
Michelle Orange'sfiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's, The Village Voice, and other publications. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection published by McSweeney's. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a second book.