BEST BEFORE DEATH is a portrait of a man wary of exposure, recalcitrant towards the documentary-making process, and yet desperate to make peace with his past through public performance art and ritual. Having once sought attention from the public through anarchic situationist stunts and sample-heavy electronic music, former KLF frontman Bill Drummond now seeks creative satisfaction through a more intangible, private, and diluted form of performance art.
Burning one million pounds – as Drummond actually did in 1994 – might elicit indignation and bafflement from the general public, but as an act of rebellious performance art it’s pretty easy to wrap your head around. Burning money can be clearly read as a fairly obvious – if infuriating – statement about the distribution of wealth, power, and the absurdity of capital and the art world in general. However, the twelve-year ‘25 Paintings’ tour which this documentary chronicles is far less accessible. Over the course of the tour Drummond, and his collaborative partner and friend Tracey Moberly, tour cities of significance to Drummond, performing and documenting mundane rituals ranging from baking cakes and distributing them to the community with no explanation, to banging a drum and making a bed frame. BEST BEFORE DEATH covers two years of this immense tour, following the pair to Lexington North Carolina and Kolkata, India as they try to dredge vaguely profound meaning from the mundane and agonisingly micromanaged rituals Drummond has concocted.
“BEST BEFORE DEATH is an unconventional profile of an artist because Drummond’s practice and character remain almost as elusive and inscrutable post-viewing as they are before.”
BEST BEFORE DEATH is an unconventional profile of an artist because Drummond’s practice and character remain almost as elusive and inscrutable post-viewing as they are before. This is, in part, because Drummond is so reluctant to allow a director to wrest control of his narrative and ruin the mystique of his work, and because the scant reasoning behind the rituals Drummond provides exist in a fine-art philosophical vacuum where vague, profound meaning is just sort of assumed to exist. Observing Drummond on the Indian and American legs of the tour makes for a fascinating insight into the contrasting cultural reactions to such introspective and abstracted artistic practice. The segment allows us to see what happens when you move the ideas and practices valid in art school and galleries into the milieu of real life; where people are all at once critical, curious, baffled, mildly amused and inclined to humour Drummond’s eccentricity.
For Drummond, his art seems to be about coming to terms with his own very private life, and about making connections – albeit tenuous ones – with people across the world. BEST BEFORE DEATH is far more a film about how we as humans struggle to kindle meaning for, and exercise control over, our lives than it is about a tour or a famous artist.