On the Fence : Extra!


Sunday, October 07, 2007


New York's hottest video artist screened in Venice and Toronto. How Bjork's boyfriend is gaining acceptance one leg at a time
National Post
Thursday, September 22, 2005
J. Kelly Nestruck
National Post

Over the past five years, art-world superstar Matthew Barney's work has increasingly ventured where few avant-garde video artists dare to tread -- your local movie theatre.

Best known for his seven-hour Cremaster Cycle -- a five-part magnum opus named after the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles -- Barney's films began being shown at art-house cinemas when novelist Norman Mailer made a bizarre appearance as Harry Houdini in 1999's Cremaster 2 (actually the fourth in the series) and attracted a whole new kind of viewer to Barney.

Drawing Restraint 9, Barney's latest two-and-a-half-hour art epic, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival this month, marking the bad-boy artist's full-scale acceptance by the film world.

Starring his partner, Bjork, who also composed the soundtrack, Drawing Restraint 9 is likely to be his most viewed film -- though it won't ever show up at a multiplex.

"This feels a little bit new, to be more integrated within the festivals," says the blue-eyed artist, sipping a glass of water on a rooftop of the Park Hyatt in Toronto on the last day of the film festival.

Once called "the most important American artist of his generation" by The New York Times, Barney shies away from the term filmmaker, however. He primarily considers his mystifying movies as a way of displaying his temporal sculptures, which are often made out of petroleum jelly and dissolve.

"I make narrative sculpture," says Barney, looking well-manicured and dapper and completely unlike the horn-headed, amphibious freak he plays in Drawing Restraint 9. "The fact that there is a film audience for these pieces was initially a surprise to me, because that wasn't really the intention with the Cremaster films ... The intention of them at the core is about object making, but, yes, I'm thrilled that they can function as films also for a relatively small audience."

In Barney's perfect world, Drawing Restraint 9 would be shown in art museums alongside sculptures and set pieces from the film. It is difficult, however, to get art patrons to show up on time and watch entire films in uncomfortable screening rooms. "People don't tend to go to museums with the intention of having that kind of passive experience," he notes.

Having his film distributed in cinemas -- as the Cremaster Cycle has been in recent years -- ensures that people watch his films beginning to end as Barney believes they need to be seen, but omits the accompanying art installation and curatorial explanation.

"That interests me, but I think it's probably not the ideal way to see the work," says Barney, who entered Yale as a pre-med student hoping to become a plastic surgeon in the 1980s, but discovered his calling in the art department.

Drawing Restraint 9 largely concerns a Japanese whaling ship's crew's creation of a giant Vaseline sculpture in the shape of a "field emblem," the abstract shape that has been Barney's artistic logo since Yale. It is shaped like a hockey rink with rectangles jutting out where the players' benches would be -- or like a solid, stretched London Underground symbol.

Barney usually describes the field emblem as representing a body taking on a self-imposed resistance as a way of encouraging creativity. Drawing Restraint 1 (only No. 9 is a film) expressed this most succinctly: Attached to an elastic cord that kept pulling him back, Barney strained his way up a ramp to make a drawing on a wall, mark by mark. The med student in Barney compares this self-obstructing process to the way the muscular system works.

"When a muscle is put under resistance, it breaks down the muscle tissue," explains Barney, who was a football and wrestling star in high school and whose athletic physique paid his way through school, modelling for the likes of Ralph Lauren and J. Crew. "The muscle tissue then heals and becomes stronger and larger, so that growth is dependent on resistance."

Watching ship workers create the field sculpture is interesting if you enjoy watching cranes slowly lifting and lowering objects at construction sites. For everybody else, the more intriguing part of Drawing Restraint 9 takes place inside the ship, where Bjork and Barney as "The Occidental Guests" undergo a bizarre mating ritual. After having their eyebrows shaved and swimming in a bathtub with lemons floating in it, the two participate in a skewed Shinto tea ceremony in a tiny compartment hidden behind a water fountain. As the compartment fills with fluid, the two real-life lovers slice pieces of each others' legs off, feed them to each other, and metamorphose into ... well, the artist is right here, so I won't take a wild guess.

"I was trying to explain it to someone last night and said you turn into men shrimp," I confess.

Barney laughs at this. "They're sea monkeys," he jokes, before explaining that he and Bjork, in fact, turn into embryonic whales. It is a relief -- to find out that, though many of his art-world fans are deadly serious, Barney has at least somewhat of a sense of humour about his wacky work. Drawing Restraint 9 is probably the most human of Barney's films, which has to do with his shooting under less tightly controlled circumstances than his previous works.

"We shot the majority of this in Japan in some pretty complicated real-world situations, which felt quite new to me," says Barney, who arranged with the Japanese government to shoot on a state-run factory ship using its actual crew. "That condition makes it feel much different ... After finishing the Cremaster cycle, I really wanted to get lost."

Unlike the grave-looking actors and artists who populated his Cremaster Cycle, the Japanese seamen who appear in Drawing Restraint 9 smile and laugh at what they are doing -- and occasionally shoot the camera annoyed or confused glances as they pump molten Vaseline into a mould or are served Field-emblem-shaped Jell-O covered in shrimp in the mess hall.

Bjork, who vowed she would never act again after 2000's Dancer in the Dark, was not obliged to participate, but jumped in whole hog, gamely allowing her eyebrows to be shaved off and a giant seashell be strapped to her back in the name of art. As it turned out, it was more difficult for Barney to conform to her idea of music composition than her to his out-there concept.

"She has a very, very specific idea of how to approach something musically -- of course, that's what she does," says Barney, who has a three-year-old daughter with the popular musician. "I have certain habits from having worked with the same composer for the 10 years of the Cremaster cycle, so I had to break some of those to work with her."

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posted by J. Kelly 5:01 AM

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