By Hugh Lilly
Matthew Barney is an American sculptor, photographer and filmmaker whose most prominent work, The Cremaster Cycle, has been variously described as “one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema” and, at perhaps the opposite end of the appreciation spectrum, “[a] humongous riff on struggle, reproduction, conceptual drag, and several dozen strands of narrative gobbledygook [that] is undeniably something to be reckoned with—if only as a relic of the boom years in contemporary art.”
Created between 1994 and 2002, and named, in the words of Nathan Lee, for “the muscle that turns your nutsack into a walnut when it gets cold,” the cycle comprises five avant-garde feature films that, like all of Barney’s work, attempt to explore “new uses of the body,” while broadening definitions of “the traditional artist.” Those last two quotes are from a commentator who appears in Alison Chernick’s 2006 film Matthew Barney: No Restraint. The films have been described as beautiful and disturbing (often in the same breath), and have, from some critics, drawn comparisons to Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist masterpiece of 1929.
To watch the cycle is to enter Barney’s headspace, a world “defined by death metal and Vaseline” which indoctrinates viewers into his cult of (artistic) personality. Perhaps to add to the ‘cult’ value of his films, Barney included Norman Mailer in the cycle’s second film, presumably under the delusion that the author is in any way still relevant—and the sculptor Richard Serra appears in Cremaster 3, which was completed in 2002. Cremaster 1 apes Busby Berkeley musicals from the ’30s, and for a role in 1997’s Cremaster 5, Barney coaxed one-time Bond girl Ursula Andress out of retirement. Further enhancing the nearly hagiographic fetishisation of Barney is the perplexingly elitist distribution method he’s chosen for the films. Though they screen periodically at art museums, galleries and select art-house theatres in Europe and North America, The Cremaster Cycle—along with all of Barney’s other work—is not readily available on disc. The full series was once released in a limited run of ten numbered, autographed sets of lavish custom-packaged DVDs, designed as pieces of fine art in their own right rather than as mass-market home-video products. Each set originally sold for US$100,000, and at a Sotheby’s auction in 2007, a copy of Cremaster 2 ludicrously fetched in excess of half a million US dollars.
Born in San Francisco, Barney spent his formative years in Boise, Idaho. Before going to Yale to study avant-garde and experimental art—a major he decided upon after a couple of semesters in pre-med, with aspirations of becoming a plastic surgeon—he was a model and star quarterback for his high school football team. Adopted by the critical establishment almost immediately after graduation, Barney appeared on the cover of Artforum in 1988 and attracted attention for his artificially restrictive methods which, calling upon his training as an athlete, were physically demanding and involved bungee cords and other sporting equipment that impeded his movement toward surfaces he bounced up to and repeatedly attacked with brushes and other implements. The artist was nurtured to prominence by art dealer Barbara Gladstone, whose 21st and 24th St. New York galleries are frequently home to his installations and shows. Barney works simultaneously in three arenas—or “states,” as Gladstone labels them in Chernick’s documentary—photography, sculpture and film, and all three are present in No Restraint.
Chernick’s film follows the construction of Barney’s 2005 work “Drawing Restraint 9,” which Matt Mazur, writing in the online magazine PopMatters, called “a bland exercise in social studies.” The piece, the end product of which is a 135-minute experimental feature film of the same name, involves 45-thousand pounds of petroleum jelly poured into a mould on the deck of a temporarily commandeered commercial whaling ship sailing off the coast of Nagasaki. The piece “stars” Barney’s wife Björk, the elfin Icelandic singer whose unlistenable warbling—which she would prefer to call a verbal “oceanic landscape”—occasionally graces the documentary’s soundtrack. Cherick’s film, demonstrably more modest than the artist it profiles, both chronicles the filming of Drawing Restraint 9 and presents something of a biography of Barney, including interviews with art critics, as well as various friends and family. No Restraint is a fine film in and of itself, but the insufferable nature of its subject and his cloying entourage are infuriatingly sycophantic. If nothing else, Cherick’s film is aptly titled: Barney seems to have at his disposal virtually unlimited funds to do with as he pleases.
Perhaps the apotheosis to The Cove, Louis Psihoyos’ anti-whaling/anti-dolphin-hunting documentary from last year, Barney’s work as profiled in No Restraint seems to provide tacit endorsement and approval of the ethically and morally despicable practice of whaling—an approval from which the documentary itself is distanced through its purely observational framework that examines (but does not critique) Barney’s artistic method. Apparently displaying the inherent ‘beauty’ in skinning whales, a sequence in Drawing Restraint 9 contains parallel scenes of the aforementioned Vaseline whale being ‘skinned’ while, below deck and in water tank, Barney and Björk emulate same by ‘skinning’ artificial limbs attached to their torsos before discarding the fake legs entirely. Village Voice art critic J. Hoberman said Barney’s art “gives ‘ridiculous’ a bad name,” and this reviewer is inclined to agree: Barney’s works are the art-world equivalent of the zeitgeist-y hyperventilating linguistic consumerism of Tao Lin and his compatriot Zachary German, although Barney is sadly less of a ‘flash in the pan’; they are the epitome of vacuous, macho bravado and contrived hipster bullshit, compelling only in their thoroughly uncompromising inanity.
Matthew Barney: No Restraint is now out on DVD through Madman’s import of the Arthouse Films label. Cremaster 2 and 3 were shown at a special screening in 2003, and Drawing Restraint 9, along with No Restraint, screened in the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2006.