Mr. Brainwash achieved worldwide recognition through Banksy’s Oscar nominated film, Exit Through The Gift Shop. But the man who refuses to accept that he has a “career” – instead explaining that he’s always been an artist and that “art” is something inside of you – has been an active member of the art community for what seems like forever. With decades of filmmaking and creative undertakings under his belt, Mr. Brainwash is the alter ego of Los Angeles-based Thierry Guetta. His first show, in 2008 in Los Angeles, was extended for three months and attracted more than 50,000 visitors. By 2009, Madonna commissioned him to design the cover of her greatest hits compilation entitled, ‘Celebration’. With major collectors and auction houses acquiring his work, Mr. Brainwash is considered one of the most prolific artists of today. Most of his shows are turned into happenings. His Miami Art Basel 2010 coup is still remembered by many. He turned an empty retail space in the heart of South Beach into an art spectacle titled ‘Under Construction’ and without announcement or promotion, became the obligatory stop for art lovers and collectors alike. After four days and thousands of visitors, he packed up and left almost as quickly as he arrived, in what some might call a successful art hit-and-run. He returned a year later with another show ‘Untitled’, turning the same space into an art gallery.
Sitting down with Thierry Guetta in the Old Sorting Office in London, the venue of his 6th show, is somewhat surreal. Most of the show isn’t up yet and the man being the Brainwash moniker is covered in paint. There is, however, no urgency in his demeanour. Even when asking for his PR to sit with him whilst we chat, Thierry Guetta is endearing. There is something almost childlike about him, he wants his PR there because he likes her, not because she might stop me from asking questions. Charming people and making them feel part of his world is a skill he masters unblinkingly. Relaxed and joking, he answers all while sipping tea and unabashedly smoking indoors.
Describing his art as “fun, happy and positive,” Mr. Brainwash’s artistic side came out at a time when things were not so fun and happy. “When I lost my mother around 10/11 years old, I started looking for things to remember, so I became really visual/ artistic. It became brainwashing for me, objects and things and people. Less talk and more images.”
More images, and yet, words, graffitied on his canvases, as if the images themselves were not enough. Recurring mottos are “Life is Beautiful” and “Never, Never Give Up,” and yet, he never utters the words. “It’s always there. That’s what it is. I don’t say it. It’s what I do. It’s my way of living life. To know that we’re not here alone, that there is a world out there, there are people in need… I use my soul, my brains to not just be satisfied and to always want more. To help as much as I want to help, to do as much as I want to do. It’s never going to stop until I’m gone. I will never stop.”
If the past is any indication of what the future holds, Guetta will truly never stop. It all started with film, but there were also paintings, clothing “on the vintage side,” and then, it exploded.
“When we did the film, Banksy pushed me to really come out as an artist, to do a show. I had a deadline to make it happen so I really had to push myself and get everything I was holding on out, everything I built inside me for so many years had to get out. That’s when the first show came out in 2008.”
From being dismissed as “Banksy’s hoax” to his use of copyrighted images being challenged and even threatened with legal action, Mr. Brainwash has faced a lot of criticism. “The more successful you are at something, the more you become a target. But I keep on going. Whatever it is, it is not going to stop me. I just love what I do, and I don’t just do it for me or people around me, but I do it for the public. I even do it for charities, foundations that need help, I do art that can help them. It’s a gift. With the show in London if I can change five people’s view on life, that’s how I make the show happen. I win. I just want people to follow their hearts, to do what they love.”
The ideas of freedom, passion and love are at the core of Brainwash’s work. Throughout our chat, it always comes back to this idea that “art is freedom. There is no rules, no manual that says you have to do it like this or like that to be an artist. Everything is freedom and everyone has his or her own way to make it happen.”
Overjoyed at the idea that “anything goes,” Guetta takes life, and by extension, art, as it comes. Linking both together, he likes repetition, not only in his pieces but also in his speech. “Art is art,” he tells me, “it is not that something that is street cannot be inside a gallery. What is Street Art in a gallery? Gallery Art? And if it goes to a museum it becomes Museum Art? It’s just art.”
Art, for Brainwash, doesn’t have to be made by the artist either. In line with Murakami or Koons, he has a team who execute his ideas. “It’s what it is all about in the current art world, but I’m a baby compared to them [Murakami, Hirst, Koons] I still have my hands completely in everything. The times of Van Gogh are over. We think much bigger. We want to build bigger things and giants things. There are no limits to try and do things. I’m like a kid. If I have an opportunity to get a building and make it happen, I do it. If it’s big, why not?”
Why not is a running thread and I have the feeling that, like a kid, he would accept any challenges. There is, however, a disconcerting, dizzying feeling about the extraordinary amount of work that Brainwash and his team put out in the world. With a view that anything can be art and having said that “if I believe it, it is art,” how can anything, from his own productions or otherwise, be classified as art?
“Art doesn’t have any rules or any mediums; art is so vague. Sometimes I get catalogues from Sotheby’s, Christies… and look in it, and I see a string with a knot, and it sells for a huge amount of money and you’re like “what is this?” but it is art for somebody. There is no judgment for art. It is whatever you think it is. I think I see art everywhere. When I walk around London, I look at the trash and it can look very artistic to me, and I can go to the pub and I see the bottles behind the bar and I say this is a great installation. For me it’s art. It depends how your heart opens to it. Art is everywhere.”
This is a view, of course, that aligns perfectly with his love of graffiti and “street art.” Art can, and is, found everywhere. But what is unusual is that Brainwash sees it as something inherent to the very concept of art: “Art doesn’t stay in one corner, art is art. It’s a living thing, like a human. Human don’t just stay outside, they go home, they go to sleep…” Art follows its own life, and again, Guetta presents us with the idea that art and life are almost interchangeable.
If there is only one message to take away from Mr. Brainwash’s art, his life, his personality and our chat, it is that “love is the answer. We can fix everything if we give more love. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Asked, as is customary for IDOL, who his idols were, he gave me a very Brainwash answer: “People, everyone – smiling people, humans and animals too – dogs, I love dogs, life, anything that is alive.”
Life, art, love and freedom: this is Mr. Brainwash’s world. This is the world we wished we lived in.