Flense With Benefits

Washington City Paper | May 26, 2006
Although Matthew Barney has successfully moved from the art museum to the art house, actually attracting paying customers to his hermetic films, his pseudoreligious services are still designed for a congregation of one: himself. Or perhaps two, now that girlfriend Björk has, quite literally, come aboard. Barney’s new film is set almost entirely on the Nisshin Maru, a Japanese vessel that’s one of the world’s few remaining whalers. This, of course, enables Barney to rile contemporary ecological sensibilities by taking a ride on a ship that kills endangered mammals. But just as fundamental to the project is something that Barney nonbelievers should have realized was only a matter of time in coming: the artist’s wedding of his ponderous ritualism to the most boring practice known to man, the Japanese tea ceremony.

You don’t need to have seen any of Barney’s five Cremaster movies to get—to the degree that that’s possible—Drawing Restraint 9. But a little information on other aspects of the artist’s method is probably useful. Barney’s films, like Christo’s wraps, are merely the centerpieces of projects that also include drawings, photographs, sculptures, and so on. These non-narrative conceptual pieces explore the artist’s individual obsessions and come in series, which are numbered but not always sequentially. (The Cremasters were made in this order: 4, 1, 5, 2, 3).

Although this is the first Drawing Restraint film, the series began about 20 years ago, when Barney was in college and decided to transfer ideas from his weight-training workouts to performance art, doing pieces in which he tried to draw while bound by elastic cords. He also developed a restraint emblem, an oval with a bar across it, that’s his own private equivalent of the Christian cross or the Star of David (or, if you find Barney’s testosterone-pumping rites a little creepy, the swastika). In this film, a massive restraint logo is constructed of petroleum jelly, one of the artist’s favorite materials. There’s also a scene involving ambergris, so perhaps Barney is connecting petroleum jelly to whale oil, a crucial industrial product before the widespread use of geologic petroleum.

Or perhaps not. Though Barney occasionally grants interviews in which he discusses the process of making his films, he rarely touches upon their meaning. In part, Drawing Restraint 9 was inspired by a Japanese museum’s interest in a Barney show, and by his observations of the country while he accompanied Björk on a Japanese tour. Using his relationship with the Icelandic singer as a sort of Duchampian readymade, Barney conceived a shipboard narrative: He and Björk arrive separately on the Nisshin Maru, dress in elaborate costumes for a Shinto wedding, do the tea ceremony with wacky implements in an absurdly tiny room, and then cut at each other’s legs with flensing knives. It’s sort of Moby Dick meets In the Realm of the Senses, as the lovers symbolically become whales hauled on board to be cut apart.

Even if Barney’s personal iconography is occasionally compelling, his films are often weakened by their static camera, slipshod photography, and crude editing. The final Cremaster—No. 3, right?—was a significant technical advance, perhaps owing to both the director’s growing skills and his realization that a three-hour film had better offer some cinematic interest. Drawing Restraint 9, which runs a mere 135 minutes, is even more of a movie-movie, thanks to its unifying location and almost-linear story. It’s also significantly bolstered by its score, mostly composed by Björk and featuring her uncanny soprano as well as Will Oldham’s high tenor and the rhythmic groan of the Nisshin Maru.

Yet working aboard a ship also hampered the film, limiting possible compositions and forcing artless lighting schemes. Barney is essentially a performance artist who films activities, not a director who knows how to work within—or even benefit from—limitations. Lots of money went into Drawing Restraint 9, which features elaborate crowd scenes and extravagant purpose-built props and costumes. But all of this high-concept clutter just emphasizes that Barney has yet to learn how to use cinema to create illusions (or perhaps just doesn’t care to). His literal-mindedness is also reflected in the film’s events, which take a first-time tourist’s approach to Japan that’s as shallow as Dan Brown’s guidebook visions of London and Paris. Barney’s private mythology may be thin, but it’s positively robust compared to his vision of the world beyond his own aesthetic fetishes.

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