Those who fear that the mainstream of contemporary art has become little more than an extension of fashion will find no comfort in Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney’s latest big-budget ejaculation of ritual self-involvement and superficial foofery. Named as part of a series of installations and performances that stretch back to the late 1980s, this 135-minute film isn’t part of the artist’s overhyped Cremaster cycle, but continues in its vein: an unsatisfying marriage of excessive production values with insipid cinematography and flat-footed editing. Showing little of its titular quality, Restraint delivers yet another plodding nonsense-rebus of esoteric symbolism with the profundity of a Bloomingdale’s window display.
Whereas the last Cremaster installment explored a St. Patrick’s Day plethora of Celtic imagery, Restraint tortures the ghost of Edward Said with an Epcot Center parade of Japanalia. In an almost wordless narrative, Barney and his real-life spouse, Björk, star in the roles of “Occidental Guests” to a Japanese whaling ship. There, the pair are treated to a complicated regimen of shaving, bathing, costuming, and tea serving by their Eastern hosts, who fuss over them with a variety of fantastical props and garments, evidently made expressly to Barney’s specifications. Much of the film depicts various Japanese groups working to create elements of the artist’s grand vision; since Barney, in an empty legacy to Warhol, hires others to labor over his real-life gallery creations, this is simply art imitating life. And surely many of his upper-class collectors would understand his interest in the celebration of quiet, skilled servitude.
Apologists like to cite Barney’s skill at “spectacle,” and there are indeed some strange sights to behold here: a kimono made entirely of mammal furs, for example, or an enormous mold of chilled petroleum jelly. The impact of these artifacts rests not so much in their fussy design, but in the excess and expense of their making—a crassly American aesthetic to be sure. In keeping, the bisected-lozenge symbol appearing in various incarnations throughout Restraint seems as hollow and safe as a corporate logo. Björk’s appearance provides the visual comforts of a celebrity mug (though her musical contributions work against the film by outclassing it). The unintentionally enjoyable climax, a scene in which knife-wielding Barney and Björk slash at one another underwater and then devour their own leg meat sushi, is no doubt destined for YouTube-ing on Gawker.
Barney’s ultimate problem is not his penchant for personalized arcana: Great experimentalists like Jean Cocteau, Maya Deren, or Kenneth Anger likewise had their own internal mythologies. But those artists actually knew how to make films; Barney edits Restraint with the same badump-badump back-and-forth of his Cremasters, and his sense of composition and lighting could barely suffice for a music video. What Barney does not grasp is that the greatest avant-garde filmmakers astound us by conjuring powerful visions with limited means. Attempting to approximate this kind of poetic cinema with blockbuster production values becomes as absurd an endeavor as writing a haiku with ten thousand syllables.