The key to a good art documentary is that its audience should be left with some sort of understanding about an artist and their work. With documentaries that set out to offer a portrait of an artist, especially a living artist with an international profile, the impression is usually that the artist is something of a genius, perhaps a little eccentric, but overall the angle tends to be flattering. Occasionally a documentary comes along that, by design or by accident, gives a completely new insight into an artist and their work and one such documentary is Alison Chernick’s Matthew Barney: No Restraint.
No Restraint follows the production of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint No. 9. The doco picks up the action as Barney and crew head out on a Japanese whaling vessel, floating around in the waters near Nagasaki. On board are Barney, his wife Bjork, the doco crew, Barney’s own film crew, and a group of bemused and oftentimes confused looking sailors. The plan is to shoot in and around the ship using its nautical stylings as the main backdrop while various symbolic actions take place – the main event being the pouring of 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly into a giant mold. The mold will be immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with Barney’s work – the giant Cremaster symbol, which in Drawing Restraint has been modified at the base to resemble the grooves and shapes of the belly of a whale. Once the mould is set, the whalers carve it up, the jelly a disturbing analogue for whale flesh.
The surrealistic language of the Cremaster and Drawing Restraint series have an internal logic that’s not easily explained. There’s a connection in Barney’s work to the slowly evolving cinematic oddness of David Lynch, but with the slightly hysterical performances of Lynch’s cast replaced by the glacial pacing of long-form performance video art. Seen in a cinema with the full benefit of theatrical sound, Barney’s films somehow transcend their blatantly contrived narratives, their music and sound design seducing the viewer into the idea that this is a different kind of movie making, and art making, and if you’re prepared to go with the flow [a flow that can last as long as 3 ½ hours] the experience is hypnotic.
The perhaps accidental revelation of Matthew Barney: No Restraint is that the artist comes off as a bit of dunce. Tall, with a range of hair lengths and various beards, Barney presides over proceedings with the authority of someone who has done all this before, and he talks to his director of photography with the assured nonchalance of a bona fide film director. But when Chernick’s camera picks him up on set, Barney seems to struggle with even the simplest of statements about his project – why he is there, what he is doing and why is thing set on a whaling vessel are never really explained. Archival footage of Barney reveals the artist to be an all-American athlete who could pretty much turn his mind to anything physically demanding. The startling juxtaposition of Barney the football player scoring a touchdown with Barney the performance artist with a glitter-encrusted dildo up his arse creates one of the documentaries’ most powerful moments.
Barney’s rise to art stardom was a series of lucky breaks. Barbara Gladstone recounts her 1989 meeting with Barney, a young art student at graduate school who’d just missed out on a show at another New York gallery. Gladstone agreed to meet him and was immediately seduced by his boyish charm and good looks. Oh, and she was mightily impressed by a Vaseline covered, refrigerated ergo-chair he had made. Fast forward to 2006 and Gladstone is Barney’s gallerist, benefactor and friend with nary a bad word to say about the guy. Happily, and to the doco director’s credit, a few friends are willing to admit that whenever Barney explains his ideas for projects to them they have no idea what he’s talking about while Barney’s dad takes the film crew around the family home to have a look at some his early work, precocious abstract paintings hanging on the living room wall.
Back on the boat, Barney and crew are shooting scenes involving made-up harpoon games, a disturbing sequence in which Bjork and the artist tear each other limb from limb, and a scintillating moment when Barney get’s a shaved. Bjork is often credited with being a sort of new age Icelandic pixie with a crazy accent that’s half Reykjavik, half London. By contrast to Barney, she is a voice of sanity and reason, even as she is being lifted on to the whaling vessel in a wicker basket dressed as a sort of Japanese geisha warrior princess. The thought occurs while watching Matthew Barney: No Restraint that this is a star couple who really need each other; one has the ideas, the other explains them.