starring Matthew Barney, Björk, Shigeru Akahori, Koji Maki
written and directed by Matthew Barney
by Walter Chaw Where Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 falls short of his brilliant, seminal Cremaster series is in its decision to focus on the exploitation of natural resources from whaling through to oil--as filtered through the prism of Japanese industry (using Shinto as the primary test)--rather than on, as in Cremaster, the process and scope of myth-making from the Celts to the Masons to Gary Gilmore. The focus is too discrete for the far-reaching archetypes Barney's disquieting, biomechanical surrealism suggests (he's somewhere at the fulcrum between Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg)--the attempt to articulate the perversity of man's exploitation of their natural resources seems a little like what it is: an artist too good and too provocative to waste his time on something that sells so trite.
Preceding this is a tea ritual consisting of a bile-green liquid infused with ambergris and served in shells that mirror Barney and Björk Shinto marriage gowns, which are adorned with the carapaces of sea creatures. Find logic here in Barney's choice of the Japanese culture as the looking glass through which he filters his thoughts on the madness of man's ideological divorce (and inseparability) from his truer nature. It's a refashioning of a culture that has taken the elevation of ceremony to something like fervour, while the spectre of nuclear holocaust hangs over their mass veneration of equal, disparate draughts of big-eyed cute and nihilistic horror. (Powder-pop vs. bukkake.) Stripped of their formalism, the film's pearl divers, the whaler's preparation of their haul, and the marriage ceremony's flensing ritual birthing thrashing, aquatic creatures reveal, in the twitches and convulsions, our lizard brains freed of the lie of civilization.
It's not too great a stretch to see that the effect of Drawing Restraint 9 could have been an Ozu film or a Wallace Stevens poem--and its appearance in a United States post-9/11 (our own little version of Armageddon from above) feels less like an accident than like a cry of recognition. Rocks bleed petroleum jelly (not a bad analog for geological amniotic fluid) while a giant cylinder of volcanic issue, this film's lunar monolith, subs in the picture's visual vernacular for the limited resource plundered in Man's heedless forward ambition. The film's liquid baseline stands in contrast to Cremaster's priapismic constructions--but that confrontation between the mercurial with the eternal, the eternally-mutable force with the immutable effigy, doesn't quite yield the kind of introspective, existential epiphany of which Barney's art is capable. What remains, once unmoored from the illusion of circumstance, is a visually-arresting, sometimes impossible-to-watch art installation about how man falls away from his self only to return to the dank fold of the collective through ritual, religion, and the ineffable tides of art that bind. It's a lovely thought, but it's not a surprising one; going out on that proverbial limb, it all might be much ado about nothing. Originally published: May 12, 2006.