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Matthew Barney: cinema under review

At ACMI Ben Convey reflects on the Barney impact

Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney
photo Chris Winget
Earlier this year, as part of its Future Classics program, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) presented the Australian premiere of New York artist Matthew Barney’s newest film, Drawing Restraint 9 (2005). Complementing this were screenings of Barney’s recent De Lama Lamina (2004), the Australian premiere of Alison Chernick’s documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint (2006), and a brief return season of his iconic Cremaster Cycle (1995-2002) (unfortunately marred by the non-arrival of the Cremaster 4 print). The ‘future classics’ tag, a conspicuously optimistic divination, suggests that Barney is developing into a proto-auteur, the ACMI program serving as unofficial Barney film retrospective. This is an interesting accomplishment for an artist who makes films but isn’t quite a filmmaker.

A petroleum jelly sculpture, the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru and the music of Icelandic singer (Barney’s partner) Björk are some of the unlikely elements in the Drawing Restraint 9 mix. The film obliquely tells the story of two Occidental tourists (Björk and Barney) as they are welcomed onto the Nisshin Maru as guests during a whaling expedition. As they undergo traditional Japanese rituals beneath deck including a tea ceremony, the sculpture, in the shape of Barney’s emblematic field symbol (an elongated oval, horizontally bisected by a bar—representative of whales in this film) sets from liquid to jelly, and moves through a series of transformations and disintegrations. Obscurity of concept and idiosyncratic deployment are clearly Barney staples.
Drawing Restraint 9, Bjork Drawing Restraint 9, Bjork
photo Chris Winget
The film is the 9th (and already superseded) instalment in an ongoing, otherwise non-cinematic Barney project, which since 1987 has explored the process of creativity under artificial restraints. This informs Alison Chernick’s making-of documentary more than it does the diegesis of Barney’s film. His filmic creations (he is predominantly a sculptor) are so ostentatious they seem to demand heuristic analysis, yet are more immediately accessible when viewers pose as aesthetes. Drawing Restraint 9 is no exception.

Björk suggests in the documentary, No Restraint, that since Barney mainly considers himself a sculptor, his films are primarily in service of that role. Yet Barney and his distributors are evidently courting a wider, more instantaneous audience than sculpting alone could attract. Along with this come the twin demands of narrative and spectacle, awkwardly coupled with the competing expectations that Barney deliver both an aesthetic cinematic ‘event’ and something transcendentally artful. This is the tightrope he began walking in 1995 with Cremaster 4, and perhaps in a way that the earlier films were only able to achieve intermittently, Drawing Restraint 9 may just have enough to satisfy such diverse demands.

If Barney is at his best with Drawing Restraint 9, perhaps in this case one of the best things about Barney is Björk. The film’s much touted status as collaboration, rather than Barney vehicle with Björk in tow, is exemplified by the importance of her eclectic score, which strengthens the film’s most striking sequences. From the sub-bass symphony in the film’s opening passages, which abruptly bursts into a cacophony of ecstatic industrial noise, to the haunting electronic arpeggios and Björk’s intense soprano wailing that underscores the pivotal storm scene, the music evokes a visceral reaction to the film’s driven visual juxtapositions. Like all his preceding films, the music is a vital ingredient and Björk excels in crafting a unique soundscape.

Though a superficial glance might suggest otherwise, the film resists the narrow orientalist impulse of most American representations of Japanese culture. Drawing Restraint 9 couldn’t be more removed from obsessions with kooky otherness (though it might strike some as kooky itself). The film’s cinematic resonances are many, from its Powaqqatsi-like pseudo-ethnographic documentary moments in the opening stretches to the Cronenberg-esque transformation in its denouement. It also bears that unmistakable Barney hallmark, the plodding back-and-forth editing style. Nevertheless as an idiosyncratic exploration of form, shape, biological transformation and, above all, individual artistic whimsy, Drawing Restraint 9 sees Matthew Barney still very much doing it his way.

Matthew Barney: No Restraint serves as both the making of Drawing Restraint 9 and companion-piece to Barney’s artistic output till now. Chernick’s documentary explores not only the production of his latest film but also Barney’s meteoric rise to darling status on the New York arts scene through his other Drawing Restraint projects, the Cremaster films and various other works. As demystification of the obtuse symbolic logic in Barney’s latest film it is only partially successful, focusing quite a lot on the confusion Barney’s vision creates for many of his Japanese associates and the crewmembers of the Nisshin Maru. Chernick portrays Barney as manic, determined and enigmatic. The insights into the ongoing Drawing Restraint project raise the uncertainty of whether to afford primacy to process or product in Barney’s work. If only the documentary were less of an appetiser, it may sit oddly within Drawing Restraint itself as an exploration of the process and its unique constraints.

The other relatively new Barney film at ACMI was De Lama Lamina (the ACMI screenings were the film’s Melbourne premiere). The film was made after Barney completed the Cremaster Cycle and is part documentary, part remix/re-incorporation of his collaboration with American-Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay for the Salvador Carnival celebrations. The title translates roughly as “From Mud, a Blade” and while its thematic fusions of organics/technology and nature/culture is pure Barney, as a cinematic document of a performance in a specific time and place, it is unique within Barney’s emerging filmic cannon.

Lindsay’s Latin funk band perform atop a truck pulled by a tractor/tree fusion, during the Carnival parade, as environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill and the Greenman (a naked man decorated with fluff and goo, bulbous, floral and beak-like protrusions and an Orangutan doll) create sculptures of organic/artificial composition above and below the engine. This is all surveyed by multiple hand-held digital video cameras and complemented by a cunning mix of the live music that gradually builds to a feverish climax. The intensity of this aural build-up and the audacious representation of the Greenman’s sexualised mechanical encounter (which one assumes from the credits, was shot later in the studio, not live) are among the film’s successes.

Drawing Restraint 9 has been given staggered screenings nationwide, with brief seasons at the Nova Cinema in Melbourne and the Chauvel in Sydney, representing a new frontier in Barney’s colonisation of the cinema scene. As with any premature attempts at canonisation, whether Barney’s filmic work warrants the ‘future classics’ tag is yet to be proven. Though there are undoubtedly fantastic visceral and visual pleasures within his works, he continues to attract criticism for lazily translating gallery art into cinema for a post-MTV generation. While this might say more about the audience than the artist, it is largely the former that builds reputations and determines the classics, for better or worse.

Barney’s cinematic works exist in a multimedia spectrum including gallery installations, books and sculpture-as-prop, to some extent suppressing the urge of cineastes to claim his works fully as their own. While being equal parts gallery art and pop cinema undoubtedly presents challenges to discourses of reception, it is not as if this is entirely new. David Lynch fused the worlds of surreal cinema and television melodrama in Twin Peaks long before the birth of motion picture television and continues to pursue his aesthetic obsessions in a variety of media, even furniture. Completely independent of whether a work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, categorisation is a popular obsession. Barney, love him or hate him, serves as but one reminder that rigid categories do not simply exist unchallenged, but are constantly under review.

Future Classics: Drawing Restraint 9, directors Matthew Barney, Bjork; Matthew Barney: No Restraint, director Alison Chernick; De Lama Lamina, director Matthew Barney; Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne, May 12-17

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 22

© Ben Convey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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