Posts Tagged ‘contemporary art’

I first heard about Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. I was really excited to watch it because I was sure it would provide a glimpse into the life and thought process of the incredible infamous and equally elusive British street artist Banksy, whose works have appeared everywhere from his native city of Bristol to the wall that divides Israel and Palestine. His repertoire does not just include stencils and spray but playful installations and elaborate hoaxes. In fact, in 2009, he gained additional notoriety by pirating the walls of a public Bristol museum, where he hung his own artworks and captions, as well as through his dolphin ride installation, which had been done in response to BP’s oil spill. Most recently, he has even been credited with directing the opening sequence of the October 11, 2010 episode of The Simpsons.

But this is not a post about Banksy, nor is this a film about Banksy. “What?” you may ask, incredulously, “but it’s A Banksy Film!” At first, I was a little disappointed too, but to be honest, viewers knew that this would be the case fairly early on, when a hooded Banksy with altered voice gave a brief introduction to the film. Think of this film more as a Banksy project, if that helps you wrap your head around the massive amounts of disappointment that I’m sure you’re feeling right now. But take solace in the fact, dear reader, that although Banksy and his own art appear only sporadically throughout the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop still serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of street art, and its message makes this film a prime example of a Banksy project.

So yes, although this film was not what I had originally expected, it was still incredibly enjoyable and informative. Aptly termed “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” it definitely provides a rather candid glimpse into the nocturnal adventures (both failed and successful) of a variety of street artists. Aside from Banksy, big names such as Space Invader, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster and their works all made appearances in the film. And although it was a movie originally intended to be about street art and Banksy, it soon becomes quite clear how and why it developed into a documentary about the eccentric man behind the camera.

Meet Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, who ran a vintage clothing store and developed the rather peculiar obsession of filming absolutely anything and everything on his camera. While on holiday in France, he began filming the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader and was soon drawn into the burgeoning street art scene. Upon returning to L.A., he continued seeking out the rising stars of the street art scene, a process that was aided greatly by his cousin, then by Shepard Fairey, who though reluctant at first, accepts Guetta as first a tagalong who happens to have a camcorder and then lookout on his nighttime wanderings. Guetta dives into his role with enthusiastic incompetence and films everything with a blundering sense of awe. His filming, finally having been given the direction and focus that it had previously lacked, leads Guetta to inadvertently take up the task of documenting this ephemeral genre of contemporary art.

Eventually, Guetta develops a desire to meet the infamous Banksy, an artist who he believes will complete his comprehesive record of street artists. Fate somehow brings Banksy to the West Coast, and Shepard Fairey introduces him to Guetta, who has developed the reputation of the man for out-of-town street artists to contact to get everything from supplies to information on the best walls to a nighttime ride. Soon Guetta is faithfully shadowing the elusive Banksy, even traveling with him to England to record his workshop and capture his projects.

Spoiler alert!! For those of you who want to find out for yourselves how this movie unfolds, and are only interested in the critical review and analysis, please skip ahead to the paragraph after the Life is Beautiful wall picture!

Meanwhile, inspired by the works of the artists around him, and eager to take part in what looked like a good time, it is revealed that Guetta has started experimenting with the mass dissemination of images via stickers and wheat-pasting under the psuedonym Mister Brainwash (MBW) and it comes to light that Thierry Guetta had been accumulating thousands of hours of footage with no real intention of editing it together to create a comprehensive documentary. Meanwhile, Banksy is preparing for his big debut show in L.A., Barely Legal. After this monumental US show, the commercial market for street art in contemporary art collections started to boom. It was at this time that Banksy decided that the time was right to show the world that street art was a messy business and that it had never been about the money. Faced with Banksy’s challenge to finally create a film, Thierry Guetta finally starts to edit his accumulated tapes.

Six months later, Guetta flies to London to show Banksy his almost-complete film, Life Remote Control. Banksy is absolutely flabbergasted and slightly terrified with the result, saying that the film was like someone with ADHD had gotten a hold of a remote control and was flipping through TV channels for 90 minutes. Keeping the tapes in an attempt to create a more complete and accurate documentary which would better portray the importance of street art as captured by Thierry Guetta, Banksy gives Guetta an assignment designed to distract: go home to L.A., create some art, and put on a show.

Thierry Guetta throws himself into this project, fully adopting the MBW persona, and invests in a production line of artists and assistants, working to churn out prints of altered pop culture icons in a thoroughly Warhol-esque manner (but with none of the Warhol irony). Eager to please Banksy, MBW excitedly prepares for his huge gallery debut, appropriating a huge studio for installations, prints, and other assorted projects. Meanwhile a change is occurring in this central character: the blundering but otherwise endearing Thierry Guetta slowly transforms into an art world douchbag. Constantly on his cell phone, he becomes concerned mostly with hype, and attempts to become the biggest and hottest commodity in L.A. He sells pieces ahead of the show with arbitrary price tags, most of which are dependent on the object’s size, and often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hours before the show he transforms into a control freak who is concerned with only interviews and handshakes. But despite the massive amounts of disorganization and procrastination, manages to pull off a critical success of a show that is attended by thousands of people. After the exhibition, he appears arrogant and self-satisfied, pleased to have finally established his place among the legendary street artists he had been filming for the past decade. Meanwhile, Banksy and Shepard Fairey show a certain amount of disdain for the pointlessness of MBW’s art, and seem uncertain as to what to make of the public sensationalism surrounding MBW.

Directed and produced by a notorious and mysterious trickster, this film has been widely called nothing more than an elaborate hoax, and has even been classified as a “prankumentary” by New York Times film critic Jeanette Catsoulis. I personally disagree with her assessment because it’s absolutely possible for someone to fall into a career over the course of a year and a half and create massive amounts of art when they’ve hired a production line of assistants. Some have even speculated that MBW was created for the purpose of the documentary. But the question as to whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a case of life following art or art following life is irrelevant, because it’s the introduction and message that’s important.

The first act of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, as seen through the exuberant eyes of Thierry Guetta, and the second act of this film becomes a documentary about Guetta as MBW. MBW becomes the perfect juxtaposition for street artists like Shepard Fairey, who has spent years finding his style, and Banksy, who is very thoughtful with his projects. While most artists spend their time developing their technique, finding their style, and thinking about the meaning of their works, MBW found his style quite quickly and almost accidentally, and uses repetition and gigantism without too much thought. Interviews taken during MBW’s debut exhibition show viewers praising the work as revolutionary, and assigning value to objects that clearly have none.

So perhaps this film isn’t so much a documentary, but more of an exposé. More than that, this film highlights the relationship between the world of street art and the world of contemporary/pop art in its second act. With a note of irony that only street artist can provide, this film raises questions regarding issues such as the monetary valuation of artwork, the commercialization of street art, and the appropriation of images. Perhaps most interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop underscores the pretentiousness of the contemporary art scene. So yes, this film makes you think. And, more than that, it successfully does what it was meant to do: provide the viewer with a glimpse into the chaotic world of street art and give them a good time while doing it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will be digitally available for both rent and purchase on iTunes and Video on Demand channels beginning November 23, 2010 and available on DVD (with awesome extras, like a version of Life Remote Control) on December 14, 2010. I definitely suggest watching this film with some friends, not just because it raises a lot of quite interesting questions and topics that you’ll most likely want someone to talk to, but because it’s just that good of a ride. And the best part is that you don’t need to be a street art buff to love this movie. For all my analysis, it’s simply a great introduction into the world of street art, and just a lot of fun to watch.

For those of you who want more background on the film, here’s a wonderful interview with the producer and editor of Exit Through the Gift Shop with Movie City News about the documentary that never really existed. And, here‘s an interesting interview with Shepard Fairey about the film as well.

Dear reader, I have a terrible confession to make: I have been putting off writing this post for as long as this blog has been in existence. I had first discovered Deitch in 2008, while researching street artist Swoon for a seminar class at University, and promptly fell in love with their whimsical website and unique mission. Soon after returning to New York City in June 2009, I went to visit their exhibition spaces and was instantly impressed with everything about Deitch. Imagine my intense sadness when I heard the announcement in January 2010: Jeffrey Deitch, founder and proprietor of Deitch Projects, would be closing up shop in June 2010 to become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It couldn’t be! It wasn’t fair! I had just returned to New York City and I was eager to revel in urban art and Deitch Projects was to be one of the mythical gateways that would allow me to better glimpse SoHo’s legendary contemporary art scene.

It was only with terrible longing that came the realization that I really couldn’t put this post off any longer, especially since Deitch’s last associated project had just recently ended. And so, a few days ago, I finally sat down to write this post. After my hiatus, it seems only appropriate that I open with both a tearful goodbye and a thoughtful reminiscence. I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this post (and the lack of pictures in it), but there was no way, in good conscious, that I could minimize the importance of Deitch Projects. Therefore, dear reader, this post will be my testament and farewell letter to Deitch.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of an era. Mr. Deitch closed the doors of his remaining private galleries, and on October 3, 2010, the last event associated with Deitch Projects came to an end. Having once boasted three primary exhibition spaces on Wooster Street, on Grand Street, and in Long Island City (by 2010, this number had dropped to two shortly before Deitch Projects had closed, as the Grand Street location had closed earlier than the other locations), a wall space on the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, as well as numerous other temporary installation sites around the city, Deitch Projects, for the past 13 years, has been synonymous with SoHo’s contemporary art scene. For over a decade, Deitch has been associated with the names of prominent contemporary performance and urban artists such as Yoko Ono, Vanessa Beecroft, Barry McGee (aka Twist), Jeff Koons, Dash Snow, Swoon, and most recently, Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, and Shepard Fairey (these last three actually had magnificent projects exhibited with Deitch just this past year, and believe me, dear reader, I am sorry that I didn’t tell you to go see them as they were happening).

As is to be expected, Mr. Jeffrey Deitch is himself quite the character. Aside from his trademark designer spectacles, he had starred in the 2006 reality TV show Artstar (which, having lacked the personal drama and eliminations that characterize reality TV show competitions, would have been more appropriately billed as a Deitch Project art documentary/infomercial in 8 parts), and is well-known for his eccentricity and enthusiasm for hosting the most fabulously flashy and chaotic events.

The term “revolutionary” tends to be thrown around a lot in the art world (mostly in reference to artists, so I feel a little less guilty about using the word in this context), so trust me, I thought long and hard before deciding to use that word in my writings. However, Jeffery Deitch’s vision for Deitch Projects could indeed be characterized as such. Let me spin you a story: once upon a time in the 1960s and 70s in happenin’ New York City, art was being appropriated by a radical bunch of artists who regarded art as a vibrant expression and reflection of life itself. These artists were seeking non-traditional media with which to represent their radical modern ideas. They were looking to change the very meaning of the word and were inviting everyone to discover the true meaning of art with them. Artists did what they wanted, dammit. Meanwhile, art was springing up in unexpected places and was getting attention from everybody. Throughout the 80s, art became widely celebrated as a spectacle that was no longer confined to museums and as a constantly evolving force that both affected and actively engaged its viewers.

Sometime in between then and now, alternative exhibition spaces and workshops that reflected the lively nature of the art began dwindling in numbers (since NEA funding dried up in the 90s and rent throughout the city began drastically increasing), and the wild art scene matured into a relatively tame fixture in New York City, giving birth to the hundreds of private galleries which now inhabit the Lower East Side in the process. Although they provided a departure from traditional spaces, such as larger museums, the atmospheres offered by these institutions were very much the same (albeit commercialized). The galleries no longer gave the artist total control. In galleries, no matter how contemporary the art, they have invariably come to be entombed in their bland prison cells…I mean, positioned carefully in spotless exhibition spaces that boast pictures in frames and objects on pedestals…which is of course, where they belong.

Deitch however, was no such white box. Deitch Projects realized that the best art came from unrestricted artists, and this made it a good time for everyone in the process. The physical gallery spaces comprised simply of a single white room, true, but it wasn’t just what was in the exhibition space that made Deitch Projects a pillar in the SoHo contemporary art world. The room was merely an anchor, a base of operation, for the numerous projects sponsored by Deitch. In the past, Deitch Projects has collaborated with musicians to create shows (such as Björk, Scissor Sisters, and Fischerspooner), sponsored extravagant annual art parades (seriously, Google some pictures), and affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood by inviting artists to utilize their façade and an otherwise broken-down wall less than a mile away.

Understandably, Deitch Projects attracted the attention not just of the art-lovers of high society and established contemporary artists, but simultaneously engaged a more radical and diverse audience and group of artists. The focus at Deitch was not only on the artwork(s) that inhabited the gallery space and the artist(s) who created it, but in actively rejoicing in the very idea of art through performances and events. By involving those working on the outskirts of mainstream contemporary art scene, Deitch Projects stepped out of the gallery and added a new dimension to the contemporary art scene. Also, by not limiting itself to its gallery space, Deitch Projects had invited a whole new audience to share the experience of art.

So the question remains as to who will champion the contemporary art scene in New York City now that Deitch is gone. Sure, Mr. Deitch has made sure that the artists whom he has represented have found alternative representation, and sure, anyone who has spent more than five minutes wandering around the Lower East Side will realize that there is no shortage of contemporary art galleries to continue propagating the well established and newcomers to the contemporary art scene alike. But as art critic and Paper Magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick has said, Mr. Deitch “understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and…[that] studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.” And that, my friend, is the keen eye that the SoHo contemporary art scene is now without.

Unfortunately, some don’t appreciate the importance of Deitch’s work in New York City. Critic Bruce Hackney (who was previously the managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and now runs his own management company for artists) has accused Mr. Deitch of simply creating a brand name for himself and his gallery. And that brand says “young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” Apparently, Mr. Hackney believes that radicalism in contemporary art is no longer necessary or relevant. But what you seem to be focusing on, Mr. Hackney, is the style of the creators without the context of their culture. What you seem to be forgetting, Mr. Hackney, is that art isn’t limited to the gallery, and that it is precisely for the reason that art can come from anywhere (even the L train, as much as it pains me to admit) and can affect everyone.

Mary Boone (of Mary Boone Gallery, est. 1977 on Fifth Avenue) has stated that she doesn’t believe downtown’s art scene will change much, despite the departing of this legendary figure. But I think Stephan Stoyanov (of Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in SoHo) understands it best: “It’s going to leave a void. He took a lot of risks over the years- I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.” And it’s true, because no matter how you spin it, through his unique collaborations and sponsorships, Mr. Deitch had spent over a decade striving to bring outsider art to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene, and to bring a new audience into the art world. Mr. Deitch was, in essence, redefining contemporary art the way the radical artists of the 60s had done. Through his chaotic events, Jeffrey Deitch was breathing a new life into the New York City art scene. And there is a distinct flavor that will be lost once the remnants of Mr. Deitch’s galleries stop functioning for good.

However, despite what I’ve made it sound like, Mary Boone was right after all: Deitch hasn’t died, he’s just moved on. The artists of New York City will continue to create art and the contemporary art scene will continue to evolve without his patronage. I know that Mr. Deitch will bring his unique energy and revolutionary vision with him to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to Los Angeles, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck there. It’s just that it must be said: Mr. Deitch, New York City will never be the same without you.

Please note, quotes were taken from The Observer article “Dear Jeffrey Deitch: Thanks for Never Being Boring!” from January 12, 2010.