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A Strange and beautiful world

Film follows Matthew Barney's voyage of creation


Chances are Boise-raised Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 will never actually play on the big screen in his former hometown, which means you'll miss the opportunity to see, in its entirety, the scene in which Barney and real-life girlfriend Bjork conduct an elaborately stylized tea ceremony aboard a Japanese whaling vessel before flensing each other's bodies and then morphing into whales.

Maybe that's a shame. If Barney's artistic vision can be imagined as a dense yet oddly engaging map into as-yet uncharted emotional and intellectual territory, then Alison Chernick's Barney documentary, No Restraint, functions as a sort of key. Informative and highly entertaining, the film investigates Barney's inspirations without seeming condescending to viewers or compromising the adventurous spirit of the art itself.

Chernick follows Barney and his crew aboard the Japanese whaling ship, the Nisshin Maru to film Drawing Restraint 9, which at first seems like a typically gorgeous but inscrutable blend of Japanese mythology and Barney's personal iconography. Along the way, though, we get to hear insightful commentary from Barney, Bjork (who also recorded original music for the stunning soundtrack) and art-world luminaries like gallerist Barbara Gladstone, Guggenheim curator Nancy Specter and sculptor Richard Serra. Eventually, what emerges from the interviews is a surprisingly accessible portrait of a complex and compelling artist.

New York Times film critic Stephen Holden has called Barney "the most important American artist of his generation," and you certainly won't hear otherwise from this crowd. If there's an easy criticism to be made of No Restraint, it's that the film does come off like a one-sided puff piece.

But buy the hype for a little while, because the documentary definitely has its rewards. It's great fun to listen to Bjork talk about making the soundtrack, and the songs she's come up with are a perfect aural complement to Barney's visuals. Bjork, who famously swore off films after Dancer in the Dark, does in fact act opposite Barney in Drawing Restraint 9, which is fortunate: She may well be the only other living person who looks entirely at home on Barney's sets.

Gladstone and Specter, both of whom championed Barney in the earliest stages of his career, have interesting things to say about what it means to invest in a young, controversial artist. Both women were instrumental in securing Barney's eventual prominence, and they offer articulate, even passionate, testimony of their belief in Barney's vision. And they're both hilarious, in a way. Should you ever decide to host a costume party with a "dress as a New York art maven" theme, most of your girlfriends will show up looking as stereotypically black-clad and severe as these two.

Fans of Barney's Cremaster films or related installations will recognize one of his recurring symbols: a pill-shaped field crossed by a horizontal bar, which we're told represents the body and the various physical restrictions that can be placed upon it. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly in his work. In interviews with Chernick, Barney (who also used Boise State's blue Astroturf as a backdrop for a lengthy sequence in 1995's Cremaster 1) talks about his days as a Capital High football star, and the extent to which he's inspired by the interplay between art and athleticism. It's an element of Barney's work that may not be readily apparent in Drawing Restraint 9, but it's fascinating to see how Barney's obsessions get carried to their furthest logical extremes.

We do get a glimpse of the great amount of physical and tactical effort that goes into constructing a gigantic, liquid petroleum-filled mold of the symbol on the deck of the Nisshin Maru. It's a delight to watch the ship's bemused crew interacting with Barney and his team.

Barney's fantastical visuals can feel ethereal to the point of frustration, and evidence of the intense human exertion required to produce those visuals is often absent from his films; there's something refreshingly earthbound about seeing it here.

There's also footage of Barney's smaller-scale Drawing Restraint projects, most of which involve elaborate obstacles that the artist must climb up, around or over in order to reach a blank canvas. Chernick's film pays just enough attention to the ideas behind the processes to make the artwork genuinely interesting without chasing away all of the mystery.

At one point in the film, Barney admits to some trepidation about working with Japanese traditions and symbols--he knows he's open to accusations of orientalism and cultural appropriation. But Chernick also asks some Japanese museum-goers what they make of Barney's work, and their response is positive, if a little mystified. "It didn't make us cringe," says one.

Chernick's documentary is thorough and engaging enough to debunk the age-old myth about good art needing to stand on its own merit. In the case of Barney's work, it's a good strategy to avail yourself of all explanatory materials before entering such a strange and beautiful world.