Matthew Barney

More impressive than any of the films I have seen by Mathew Barney himself is the documentary film about him, No Restraint. Basically, this is a “making of” picture for his recentish endeavors. The narrative is a story of creatures (in this case, humans) who are transforming from land dwellers into whales. He has employed his long-suffering wife, the famous Icelandic island owner and singer Bjork, as the female in this pair of seaworthy shape shiftin’ seadogs. The movie jumps from his past to the present sewing up his many transformation-themed projects in a cohesive style. For the most part, his self-consciously Auteurish process consists of strip-mining exotic cultures (well, exotic at least to gallery owners) and customs, & proposing the eternal validity of male adolescent fantasy and substantiating that you can construct damn near anything with the encouragement of benefactors. Barney talks a good game, and his smoke and mirrors are straight from Comme des Garçons, but he’s basically a thumbsucker whose relentless and noisy suction covers up a fairly noxious Ugly American world-view.

Primarily set on a Japanese factory whaling ship, we are taken step by step through every material level of Barney’s process; from setting a mold of a whale in what appears to be an above ground tub, to the recreation of an ancient tea ceremony, the audience is privy to his dependency on humble functionaries to accomplish his process. The viewer is perhaps asked to believe that Barney stays on the ship for the entire six-month journey with the fishermen, spearing 440 whales. I suppose it’s fortunate that in the meantime, he didn’t stage an attack on the ship by faux animal rights activists from Tribeca. Somebody could get hurt. But instead, we learn that this “whale adventure” was inspired, not by Melville’s Moby Dick, which would be somehow too stodgy and unpostmodern, but by a memory of a documentary film from the 60’s he saw when he was a child. It makes to wonder if 30 years from now we’ll have to sit through his oh-so-cool interpretation of late night infomercials.

Barney has not-so-daringly co-opted the surface of Japanese culture for White Guy Imperialism, and turned it into grotesque veneer, a chinoiserie not unlike the ritual decorations in somebody’s New York loft. He employs not only the people but the actual festivals and sacred customs in order to redeem the weird orientalist side of his psyche. Barney portrays “ancient culture” by filming Awa Odori folk dancers among industrial architecture. He characterizes these architectural structures as being “as character as much as, you know, human driven characters as character.” For the sake of a certain evenhandedness, after the Japanese premiere of Drawing Restraint 9,two Japanese men give their contradictory testimonials, both very polite. The first commented, rather ambiguously, “Honestly, I didn’t understand what the content of the film was. I was honestly surprised our culture could be portrayed in this way.” The other man, a bit more charitably, says: “He has put Japanese culture into himself and then represented it through his own viewpoint, plus, he is adding his own imagination to it. Usually when an American artist uses Japanese culture in their work, it makes Japanese people cringe. But his project doesn’t give us any of those feelings.” One can be grateful for small things, like not showing Mount Fuji, The Ginza, or cherry blossoms or geisha.

It was refreshing, however, to see his work process counterpointed with short vignettes of Barbara Gladstone, one of his first curators, among others. The clips of his first lauded works screamed of his youth as a jocky, All-American version of Joseph Beuys: Vaseline covered barbells (OMG, like, so gross!) and collage incorporating a piece of a wrestling mat – how this must have rocked the “Contemporary Art World,” in its hunger for musky gymnasium authenticity! Gladstone gently hammers home the limitless opportunities Barney gets simply because he has mastered the Art of the Pretentious and Sporadically Amusing Infomercial. There may be a hundred naked emperors in the art world, but nobody’s threads are as stylin’ as Matty B’s.

Categories: Film

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