From the inadvertent star of Banksy's critically acclaimed doc Exit Through the Gift Shop to an established pop artist showing at commercial galleries around the world, Mr. Brainwash remains an enigma unto himself. Ahead of his show at Opera Gallery, he gets all cryptic on Edmund Lee.
Just who in the world is Mr. Brainwash? Supposedly, LA-based, French-born Thierry Guetta’s involvement in the art world began in the late 1990s when he decided to spend years following the major players of the then-burgeoning street art movement and compulsively recording all its important moments on his video camera. The boxes of unwatched footage was subsequently inherited by the reclusive British artist Banksy, Guetta’s ultimate subject, who decided to make better use of the precious documentations and, meanwhile, encouraged Guetta to become an artist himself.
As the filmmaker and artist changed places, Banksy would ultimately make Guetta the star of his Exit Through the Gift Shop, an Oscar-nominated documentary that often looks too ridiculous to be true. “It was at that point I realised that Thierry maybe wasn’t really a filmmaker,” says Banksy in the film. “He was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.” Taking up the pseudonym of “Mr. Brainwash”, Guetta would go on to become an overnight sensation with his self-financed first show in June 2008, titled Life is Beautiful. The success was aided by a promotional pull quote contributed by Banksy (“Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”); an LA Weekly cover story followed the hype.
Since the release of Exit last year, speculations about Guetta’s ‘true identity’ have never really gone away, with many believing the whole thing is a put-on, and he a creation by Banksy – if not Banksy himself. It doesn’t help that Guetta’s artistic model, often consisting of gratuitous rehash of pop trash, is so sarcastically derivative that it surely can’t be serious – or can it? Regardless, Guetta’s popularity has been skyrocketing: he’s now showing in established commercial galleries, his works commonly sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and he’s regularly invited to take part in celebrity projects, such as the cover art for Madonna’s greatest hits album, Celebration. Ahead of his Hong Kong debut at Opera Gallery, TOHK conducted an interview with this enigmatic pop artist via email – in his typically elusive fashion.
It’s a very pleasant surprise to find you’re still an artist after all this time. Thank you for taking this interview.
Thank you for your time too.
Should we call you Mr. Brainwash or Thierry?
You can call me Thierry or Mr. Brainwash. I will answer to both of them.
For that matter, as a Frenchman, why do you prefer to pronounce your name with its Anglicised version “Terry”?
It’s not that I prefer it. It’s just easier.
Can you tell us about your latest projects? What have you been busy with recently?
I’m doing a party for the Academy Awards with James Franco, so I’ve been working on the invitation and making art and installations for the venue. I also just worked on decorating the set of a music video for a song with Swizz Beats, Lenny Kravitz, Lil Wayne and Travis Barker. My biggest project lately was my solo show in Miami during Art Basel, last December. I’ve been given a 25,000 sq ft building covering an entire block on Collins Avenue, right in the centre of South Beach. The show was called Under Construction and was up just for four days.
How’s your art studio doing?
My heart studio is doing fine, thank you for asking.
How many staff do you have now?
Considering the state of unemployment in California… not enough.
We trust everything that Wikipedia says, and it says “Mr. Brainwash is a pseudonym for the character Thierry Guetta in the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed by Banksy.” How does it feel that some people are still considering you as a fictional character?
It doesn’t matter to me. I like that people have their own opinion.
In the film, both Banksy and Shepard Fairey are apparently taking you as an unintended joke…
Banksy ends up saying: “I wonder who the joke is on? Or if there really is a joke actually?”
Do you think that film has hurt your artistic credentials?
Do you think my artistic credentials would have been hurt if the film had never been done?
Okay, looking back, would you rather they never made that film?
Looking back is a luxury that is available only in novels and movies.
Did it surprise you, then, that so many people think your story is a hoax?
People love a good mystery.
But assuming you’ve always been yourself the whole time. Isn’t it a profound achievement in itself that you – a completely genuine human being – have been considered by so many as an abstract satire to dupe the art world?
When you expose yourself to the world you have to be ready for anything. What you have seen of me is a bit like a Star Wars movie: there is one more episode coming.
How does it feel to be showing at commercial galleries finally?
I’m thankful that people enjoy what I do and are happy to share my work; because I put a lot of my heart in my art, it’s like a love story. Everybody likes to be loved.
What do you think about the art market considering that the more people ridicule your works, the better they seem to be selling?
Who are these people you [are] talking about? They are certainly not the people I meet on a daily basis, thanking me for giving them inspiration and courage to express themselves artistically.
Critics don’t seem to ‘get’ your work; for instance, New York magazine has casually described your first show as “wretchedly derivative, repetitive, and insultingly insipid”. Do you think the art world will come to realise the groundbreaking value of your work some day?
Of course, but don’t underestimate the value of Time as an important element to great achievement and success.
How would you describe the main theme of your body of work?
Finding ways to share with others my appreciation for life and the value of making a real effort to be happy and to make others happy.
How do you want to be remembered a few decades from now?
With a smile.
Do you have anything to say to your potential buyers in Hong Kong?
Love is the answer and life is beautiful.
Pop Street, a joint exhibition by Mr. Brainwash and graffiti artist Seen, is at Opera Gallery March 11-28.