Olympia Stone’s documentary feature film, The Cardboard Bernini, uses a particular art piece by artist Jimmy Grashow as a gateway into telling his life story. In this case, the piece in question is a large fountain sculpture built entirely out of cardboard, with the sole purpose of being displayed outside like any other fountain sculpture, where it will rapidly decay in the elements as cardboard does. Among other things, the piece is a statement on the fragility of life and all great endeavors; all things have their time, and in this case, that time is even more fleeting.
At the same time, as the story of Grashow’s life unfolds in parallel to the documentary footage of his three years plus creation of the cardboard sculpture, we get a glimpse into the universal aspects of life and artistic creation, as well as the questions that often arise. While it’s easy to point to mortality when discussing the piece, there’s also the questions of ownership, both of an artist’s work and in life in general. The elements will ultimately own Grashow’s piece, but in the meantime he has to deal with those who feel he is making a mistake, and that perhaps he shouldn’t be putting so much effort into something he plans to destroy.
But there’s more than a few things to be said about an artist wanting to do more than just create the piece and let it be what it will be. While an incident involving one of Grashow’s previous pieces is an easy touchstone to point to for where he decided he wanted to be the owner and master of a piece of epic art from birth through death, I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have arrived there anyway. As he eventually realizes in the film, Grashow’s art and life has been heading in this direction for a long time.
Which leads to the contradiction inherent in creating a piece destined for immediate decay in an effort to perhaps master an inevitable event that one doesn’t have any control over anyway; all that is truly mastered is the timetable, and even that isn’t a given. Until the fate of the piece plays out, there’s no real predicting how long it could survive. Illusions of control, momentary mastery; isn’t that what all of life is?
While I found elements of Grashow’s personal story interesting, the true meat and merit of the film is in the themes you contemplate as it rolls along. As someone who often combats stressful thoughts of artistic creation with the notion that I should relax and get on with it, as “this will all end in the sun’s supernova anyway,” I can relate on a number of levels to what Grashow is not only dealing with, but what he is questioning on a daily basis. As is often the case, it’s beneficial to see someone else encounter similar notions and tackle them in ways that reveal new perspectives. Grashow does it with his cardboard fountain, filmmaker Stone does it with her story of Grashow and we the audience get to parse and process it all to find our own truths.
In the end, The Cardboard Bernini is a fascinating study of an artist and not just his work, but also the motivations and themes that spur the creation on. I think any artist will find something to relate to in this film, but I also feel that, even though this particular filter is artistic and sculpture oriented, it doesn’t mean that the universality of the questions won’t be grasped and appreciated by all who draw breath. In that way, this is more than the story of Jimmy Grashow, or of a cardboard fountain scuplture, but of life itself.
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