Matthew Barney: No Restraint

2006, Movie, NR, 70 mins


If multimedia artist Matthew Barney's DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 left you confounded like no film since, well, Barney's CREMASTER series, Alison Chernick's insightful and surprisingly accessible making-of documentary provides welcome help. Barney's 103-minute film follows the crew of the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru as it leaves port for a months-long whaling expedition. Two Western "guests" (Barney and his wife, Bjork) are along for the ride and are stripped of their conventional clothing, dressed in a strange version of traditional Japanese gear and invited to a tea ceremony. After the ceremony, they embrace and, as the room fills with water, carve away at each other's legs with flensing knives. Meanwhile, on deck, a large mold filled with liquid petroleum jelly hardens and then falls apart. Like Barney's best work, it's as baffling as it is mesmerizing. But Chernick sheds light on the artist's method and meaning, mostly through interviews with Barney and such art-world luminaries as gallery owner Barbara Gladstone, who's been showing Barney's work for most of his career, and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. Chernick's assemblage of rare film clips documenting early Barney performances, including previous installments in the "Drawing Restraint" series, are particularly valuable. They help put DR 9 (the cycle's only feature-length film) into a larger context. A high-school wrestler and football player, Barney has always been interested in the relationship between physical resistance and creation. Like muscle mass that must be broken down so that it can be transformed, the "Drawing Restraint" series puts the artist's body through rigorous challenges in order to produce the work. Harnessed by high-tension bungee cords in "Drawing Restraint 1," Barney attempts to scramble up an incline and draw on a blank sheet of paper until the force of the cords draws him back down. "Drawing Restraint 3" documents the calcium-carbonate dust that falls from the chalked hands of the artist as he lifts and releases a petroleum-jelly-covered barbell. As Barney explains, his "standard," a visual motif consisting of a capsule-shaped "field" crossed by a horizontal bar that recurs through his entire body of work, represents the constant creative conflict between the body (the capsule) and the force of resistance (the bar). DR 9's massive jelly mold takes this shape, and the bar's careful removal by Nisshin Maru's crew becomes the film's narrative focus. Make sense? Chernick may not answer every question about this beguiling and enigmatic film, but you wouldn't want it to: Mystery is an essential part of the Barney experience. Stick around through the end of the credits for footage of Barney performing "Drawing Restraint 10" and "11." leave a comment --Ken Fox

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