"Making Shit Up" (MSU from here on) debuted last Wednesday at the Miami International Film Festival. The documentary by Bill Bilowit (director) & Grela Orihuela (producer), both Miami collectors/art activists, depicts a period of 3 years in the life of Cuban-American artist Bert Rodriguez (BR in short), a conceptual artist whose art has become intertwined with his persona. It's not that Bert doesn't do things. He does. But no matter, it always comes back to BR.
MSU presents a slice of the idiosyncratic and ever changing art world, a kind of social collage of today's high-art post-Capitalist culture. It starts right before BR gets ready to go to New York to debut his piece In the Beginning, at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. The film ends somewhere in 2010 after Bert's 25-day show I'll Cross that Bridge When I Get to It, at Fredric Snitzer Gallery (or about the time the movie went into production).
We get to see the various facets of the almost-famous young artist: Bert selling his work, getting ready for different shows (in Miami, New York, Paris, then Seattle, and back to Miami), concentrated at work, intimating -after sessions- his artist-cum-therapist feelings to the camera, chatting at a New York restaurant (while pouring loads of mayo and ketchup on a little plate to dip his french fries in), talking to curators, welcoming strangers, assuring admirers, etc, etc, etc. Slowly, all these facets relentlessly explored by Bilowit's lens help assemble a unique superposition of Berts.¿Are these really different subjects pulled by diverse contexts? ¿Is the Bert talking to prospective buyers in his Biennial Close Out Sale in Los Angeles not the one confiding to the camera outside that venue, or the one sort of talking to himself -as if the camera was not really there?
¿Or is this merely Bert "acting" at being Bert Rodriguez?
BR as Sinister David (2007).
In passing, MSU takes a look at two first-generation masters of conceptual art: Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic. They talk to the camera -as if from some hierarchical art cloud: Acconci plays the intense über-adviser; Abramovic is the poised story teller. Their anecdotes and opinions serve to anchor the more hectically asymmetric incidences in Bert's everyday world. A couple of appearances by an anxious Jerry Saltz (a famous New York art critic) add a snobbish scholarly tone: He goes against the grain and peremptorily judges Bert's work with this blasé Freudian take on art, his loquaciousness a bit on the neurotic side. Fredric Snitzer playing himself is a treat: The Miami gallerist's uneasy, camera-un-ready jocular judgments presents a cool contrast between excess and containment, self-parody and earnestness.
In the meantime, Bilowit delves at the raw factor of mundane aesthetic existence: Bert the witty conversationalist, the self-deprecator, the detached commentator of his own struggle, the young man walking his dog, the intuitionist craftsman, the not-so-convinced theorist, the conceptual risk-taker, the attentive son (his parents figure somewhat prominently in his works, Bert's mom has an important supporting role in his current work), the friend.
MSU keeps a nice momentum between desire and achievement, talk and fact (though towards the end the film drags just a bit on redundant minutia, but this is very minor). Of course, there is a level in which Bert's self-deprecating antics can become a trap. Why? Because in order to be BR, it becomes almost expected for the protagonist to [under]play himself.
Granted, being BR requires a good doses of self-absorption, but it would be equally deceiving to think that Bert Rodriguez is all that Bert is really about.
BR playing Kim Kardashian, (2010).
If one watches carefully, there are one or two moments in the documentary when Bert definitely "fails" at being Bert Rodriguez. I'm not talking about the predictable "honest moments" when Bert comes across "vulnerable." That he is good at: That is precisely being BR! In fact, Bert tries hard not to show this other almost lost baffled self.
Fortunately, Bilowit's lens goes after the spirit of Papini's existential quote above. And he finds those precious seconds when even Bert Rodriguez cannot be himself.