Matthew Barney is one of the USA’s highest profile contemporary artists, primarily due to his internationally successful Cremaster Cycle of art films that were produced between 1994 and 2002. Over the course of his career he has worked with physical performance, sculpture, drawing, and photography. He has been both criticised and praised, but even those praising his visually striking works often disagree on what they believe his works actually mean.
Alison Chernick trails Barney in this 2006 documentary feature as he develops and stages his latest art installation “Drawing Restraint 9”. While the project involved creating works in numerous media, Chernick’s film focuses primarily on the feature film that Barney wrote, directed, and starred in – collaborating with his partner of the time, the Icelandic singer Björk. It is surreal and multi-layered work that ostensibly tells the story of a love story between two people on a Japanese whaling ship. In practice it means tracking the casting on deck of a sculpture made from petroleum jelly, the history of whaling, traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, and Shinto religious practices. No Restraint, of course, is not that film. Rather, it’s a document of making that film combined with an interview-based overview of Barney’s artistic career to that point.
The film offers an intriguing portrait of the creative process. I have always been a fan of art documentaries that capture process rather than simply results, and in this respect viewers are well served. “Drawing Restraint 9” is a logistical nightmare, and it is fascinating watching Barney negotiate through translators with the crew of the Japanese whaling ship Nissin Maru to help set up an enormous mold and fill it with mass quantities of petroleum jelly, and later use the ship as his personal roving ocean set to film a feature film with both himself and Björk in costume. As an advertisement for the actual film it works like a dream. Things appear to be extraordinary weird and intricately designed, even from a behind-the-scenes perspective.
The film is on shakier ground when it attempts to delve into Barney’s past and explain his art. His own explanations for his “Drawing Restraint” series are clear and readily understood, but once his career in general is discussed by his original benefactor, art critics, and others, it shifts uncomfortably from analysis to hagiography. Either he is unarguably a universally beloved artistic genius – and any quick survey proves that is patently untrue – or No Restraint is acting less like an analysis of his work and more of a puff piece. Nothing feels aggressively interrogated or thought out, simply appreciated. It is a sorry situation for a documentary to be in, since a proper interrogation of his work is something that would be wonderful to see. At it stands this documentary feels compromised; seeing Barney at work carries appeal for art practitioners and enthusiasts, but audiences are going to finish up as much in the dark as to what drives and motivates him as they were when the film started.