Arctic vessels

Matthew Barney serves up cold fish in Drawing Restraint 9
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johnny@sfbg.com

The significance of a different numeral is noted near the finale, but the number in the title of Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 makes it clear that the film is but one chapter within a gargantuan project that Barney has been working on for close to two decades, the first seven entries an array of vitrines and video installations predating and possibly even anticipating his Cremaster cycle. Barney has stated that this ninth chapter signals a shift away from the libidinal restraints and hypertrophy (a persistent muscular motif) of earlier installments, into a condition of atrophy. Got that?

A skeptic could view all of the above as a deflective shield used to ward off any criticism that is rooted in basic cinematic practice. How can Drawing Restraint 9's ponderously juxtaposed ceremonies and abundant array of symbols from the many variations of the artist's signature bisected ovular "field emblem" to the multiple manifestations of whales and other sea creatures be analyzed if they are mere parts of a broader cosmology that the filmgoer isn't taking into consideration? The worlds of Barney tend to be epically expansive in scope, making even Wagnerian opera seem smallish in terms of narrative configuration (though not in terms of emotional currency). Yet for all their majestic dives into goopy baths and slippery slides through lubricated passages, they remain clinically hermetic.

Perhaps the most expensive wedding video ever made, Drawing Restraint 9 isn't short on spectacle. Origami-wrapped fossils, an "Ambergris March" street parade, women in white cooing as they dive for pearls, citrus-scented baths, and an enormous petroleum Jell-O mold are just a handful of the first half's ingredients. Most of these somehow relate to the "Occidental Guests" (Barney and real-life mate Björk), who are bathed and shaved and, in Björk's case, given hair extensions that incorporate objects from the ocean and forest floors before being adorned in furry variants of Shinto marriage garments. Ultimately, the couple meet, mute, at the end of one chilly hall in the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru before joining a tea master in a ceremony that gives way to an aquatic mating dance. Then out come the flensing knives.

Barney and Björk might be exploring a kinship between Japan's and Iceland's cultures. Is the result expensive indulgence? Yes. While the discourse around Barney's museum exhibitions tends toward solemnity, his ventures into film have met with some irreverence that, however knee-jerk, might also be deserved. In a 2005 interview conducted by Glen Helfand for the local film publication Release Print, J. Hoberman clearly elucidated a film-focused critique of Barney, labeling his "big-budget avant-garde" movies "deeply uninteresting" in relation to the "crazy, quasi-narrative" (though usually more concise) works made in the ’60s and ’70s by underground filmmakers such as Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and Bruce Conner. Certainly, any spellbinding aspects of Barney's visuals seem schematic in relation to Kenneth Anger's or Maya Deren's alchemy.

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