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Is Banksy’s Mr. Brainwash an Art-World Borat?

Today, the New York Times' Milena Ryzik investigates Banksy’s new documentary (and Sundance hit) Exit Through The Gift Shop — asking, essentially, if the film is actually a satire, and the subject, French-Californian filmmaker turned street artist Mr. Brainwash, has been created to dupe the art world and mock the burgeoning art-factory system. Mr. Brainwash himself, a.k.a. Thierry Guetta, didn’t respond to her queries, but we spent three hours with Mr. Brainwash before the opening of his recent Manhattan art show "Icons." Our two cents? The show was so wretchedly derivative, repetitive, and insultingly insipid that we felt it could only have been an intentional prank: With its prints of famous figures Mr. Brainwash said he couldn't name from memory, and art made out of broken LPs (a staple of junk sales), it was as if they were taunting hipster collectors into buying the worst possible art to prove their hideous, herd-following taste. (Not to mention journalists' unethical gullibility: Mr. Brainwash kept trying to push a framed print on us, while mentioning how much we could sell it for on eBay.) We definitely felt put on (even if we respected the prank), but we couldn't prove it. So we tried to get him to admit it. The process was maddening.


So, this show is about icons. I see Bill Gates.

I know a little bit about Bill Gates. I don’t know deeply about his story, if it’s true or not true, but only to think about it and see what I hear is good enough for me.

Um, is that how you hope people approach you?

Like I say in the end of the film, I said, I cannot judge you. I’m not here to judge. If there is a judge today, it’s God. For me here, it’s my life. I cannot have somebody who says you are fake. Who are you to judge me? You know, you can judge me, it’s no problem. I am fake. You are fake … But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop continuing what I’m doing — and the next step might be bigger and bigger and bigger ...

Plenty say this feels like a prank. Can you prove it’s not?

What do I do to prove? To live my life? One day for me is one life. The next day is another life. It’s not important what people say.

It will become important if a significant number of people come to your show saying it’s a prank.

By Banksy, yeah? Yeah, yeah, this is something, but it’s like what I’m going to do? If I do it, it’s my heart and I believe. I’m a guy who believes above all. I believe in God.



Sure, you believe — but are you playing a role?


No. No playing a role ... It depends on the role



Look, if you’re playing a joke on the art market, it’s a pretty fun joke.


Playing a joke on the art market? But the art market, is it a joke? When you think of white on a white canvas and sell it for millions of dollars, is it a joke? Is it a joke that some people are going to spend millions on this?

So if anyone deserves to be pranked, it's the art world …

No. I don’t believe that the art market is a joke or there is not a joke. I’m not here to judge. Is it a joke, like putting [an artist’s] name onto something by someone else, so the whole world become a joke? It’s how well you play your game. Jeff Koons making millions of dollars: People have said it’s not good what he does; it’s crazy. I respect him to play well his game.

Earlier, you said that, like Madonna or Oprah, you’re going to build a school with your proceeds? What proof do you have of that?

You cannot know. I can open my heart to you, or I can be a villain. [Maybe] I can grab the money and count my money and I say, “Oh, I joke them.” But somewhere I’m a believer.

For Banksy to direct or produce a fictional artist wouldn't be surprising. Let’s say you’re a paid actor, and great at improvising lines, like Borat. People might even think this will make these pieces more valuable, not less.

Yeah, definitely. But somewhere it comes to a point, like in the first hour of the film, you see that you’re dealing with a madman already, so a madman somewhere doesn’t have a limit. You're talking to a madman ... Art for me is everywhere.

For instance?

See that garbage outside? I wanted to make a sculpture inside — take all the garbage, put it on top of it, and make New York City. Very simple: The garbage is free. But I felt like human is the most beautiful piece of art for me.

If humans are the most interesting art, then it would make sense that your performance is your real art.

I feel like I said — it comes to a point, even artists that I have bought some art from, the more I know them, the more I know what they are, the more I don’t want [to know]. Art is the artist. Understand?



No. You’re steering around this question.


If I’m really an artist?



How do I know you’re not an actor?


Like I say, a big artist — I don’t want to say name — but this big artist has 140 people working for them. Sometimes, they don’t even come up with the idea. They say: “Like, No like.” But I respect that. The mind goes too fast. It’s not me having a nail and building a box, who cares, it’s a box, take it.

Yes, someone like Jeff Koons employs actors to create his pieces. But that's not the same as an actor playing a guy who runs an art studio. Are you someone else acting as Thierry Guetta?

The problem is I don’t understand really the question: Are you an actor to interview me? How do I know?

For starters, if you asked me, I would just say, "No, I’m not.

And I would say, "No, I’m not." Some way I’m not an actor. If I was an actor, I wouldn’t be here. The movie makes a big question mark of everything because you see the evolution of all this. Some people say, "Oh he copies this and he copies this." Who says that there is rules in art today? Who says what you cannot do? Learn about my past and tell me what I am in the present ...



But you don’t seem to have existed before your first show.


But everything comes up: You’ll find space, you’ll find art. I film everything. I make sculpture of Charlie Chaplin in bronze in 1989, or I don’t have timing, so I might say '89 if it’s '91, you know, but for me I know that I made it.

Photo: Rob Loud/Getty Images