December 19, 2006

Showing No Restraint

Art Fag City: Alison Chernick's new documentary digs for meaning in the world of Matthew Barney

By Paddy Johnson

Matthew Barney on the "set" of Drawing Restraint 9 -- the subject of Alison Chernick's new documentary No Restraint (Photos: Voyeur Films)

After watching Alison Chernick’s No Restraint, a film exploring the making of artist Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, I spent the following week trying to figure out what makes a good art documentary. It's more difficult than I expected; only a few days ago I would have told you there isn’t much point in making a traditional documentary about an artist if you’re not going to focus on his best work. I also would have said I was skeptical about any film that investigates only a few aspects of an artist’s creative process -- especially when that artist’s cosmology has been described by The New York Times's head art critic Michael Kimmelman as more complex than the Kabbalah.

Given these doubts,you can likely imagine my surprise when I found myself in the position of having to throw all of them away: After years of art world professionals and laypeople alike complaining about the incomprehensibility of Barney’s work, No Restraint (opening Wednesday at IFC Center) neither finds the meaning of his work obscure nor simplifies it to the point of becoming art pablum. Chernick uses a simple format, following Barney aboard the Nisshin Maru -- a Japanese whaling ship and the set of his 135-minute, virtually dialogue-free (and weakest movie to date) Drawing Restraint 9. It highlights the Japanese crewmen’s introduction to and interpretation of his art, the working relationship between Barney and his wife Björk (who also co-"starred" in DR9) and features Kimmelman, gallerist Barbara Gladstone and other experts who chronicle the rise of the star.

Footage from these critics helps move the film along, but unlike most docs, the film does not rely on it for interpretation or content. “Interview bites go against my style and interest,” Chernick told me during a recent interview. “If I was actually going to use a talking head, it was going to have to be as a narrative tool -- as a thread to get me from point A to point C.” In other words, it wouldn't be enough for Gladstone to simply tell viewers that Barney is interested in the concept of physical best; shortly afterward we see him throwing spears at a fake whale so he can get just the right shot. This kind of filmmaking also helps Chernick avoid clips kowtowing to the mythology of the artist as it keeps the film focused and specific. “I stayed away from anything that was too fluffy or praising Matthew Barney for no reason,” she added, before moving on to discuss various aspects of production.

This isn’t entirely true; you'll hear a few “fluffy” quotes from employees of the Nisshin Maru saying things like “not many people can understand art,” but these play an important role in illustrating the difference in thought between the ship's crew and its artists and therefore cannot be regarded as frivolous. Given that a major theme within Barney’s film depicts a guest-and-host relationship, it makes sense that Chernick documents DR9's behind-the-scenes aspect of this in addition to providing clips of the art itself. The film touches on another important thread shortly thereafter when Kimmelman discusses the idea of resistance and endurance in the artist's work, explaining that prior to Barney, no artist had worked with the principle that the creative process itself should be strenuous.

Director Alison Chernick interviews Matthew Barney in a sequence from No Restraint

While Kimmelman undoubtedly provides the most insight of all the art professionals, it will surprise many art nerds to learn that his contributions are not as crucial to understanding Barney’s work as the clips featuring the artist or his collaborators. After all, only a few years ago Barney had a reputation for giving lectures that were as difficult to decode as his movies. The artist himself sheds some light on this for the first time in No Restraint, in which he tells viewers that he was initially reluctant to discuss his famous Cremaster series before it was completed for fear of influencing interpretation. Because Barney was not openly discussing his work in the mid-'90s, he would have needed a critic like Kimmelman to provide additional insight; the relationship worked very much in his favor by 1999, when Kimmelman's Times Magazine piece “The Importance of Matthew Barney" labeled him the most important artist of his generation in the same breath as describing the work as too complex to fully decipher. This continues to yield a tremendous effect on art making today, having effectively ushered in a generation of artists whose work is so full of personal symbolism no viewer can wholly interpret it.

The fact that the film remains successful despite not covering this aspect of Barney's career reflects his increased willingness to discuss his work; as if No Restraint were not enough, it reaches New York at the same time as Brandon Stosuy’s 6,000-word interview with the artist in the visual arts issue of The Believer. The added accessibility of the artist meant that Chernick could nail down other difficult subjects surrounding Matthew Barney discourse. Interestingly, this also results in No Restraint's only weak point: the exclusion of art world professionals who dislike Barney’s films creates an imbalance when the artist and his collaborators naturally integrate their response to known criticisms into interviews. For example, Björk provides some of the most illuminating commentary in the movie, telling us that Barney is a sculptor, his movies merely serving the objects he creates. But this line of thinking not only helps the viewer understand why his films seem secondary to his sculptures (which are undeniably beautiful), but also explains why many dismiss critics like Ed Halter for complaining that his movies don’t hold up to basic filmic standards. Chernick's film won't end this debate, but it does help casual viewers begin to understand why the art world takes films that require acts of viewing endurance so seriously.

To this extent, No Restraint makes no grand attempts to determine why Barney's work is so extraordinary, contextualize it among his contemporaries or even discuss his influences; in the end, Chernick told me, it doesn’t matter. "He is his own thing, and I wasn’t interested in who came before him,” she said. “I mean, we had a four-hour doc. It was about making it as concise as possible.” The lack of deep Barney background is hardly a big deal when you consider that any footage not containing new or immediately relevant material has been removed. Assuming the average documentary audience can be moved from its theatre seats to its computers, the film will undoubtedly inspire some independent research.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York city art blog Art Fag City.

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