March 31st, 2006


The films of Hercules

Matthew Barney's epic films are weird labours of Hercules. Whether he's shinning up an elevator shaft, walking along the seabed, squeezing through a tunnel connecting two cars, or climbing around the proscenium arch of a theatre, Barney's self-imposed tasks are a sort of metaphysical obstacle course, bringing to mind the more mystical end of the fiction film genre: the crossing-the-pool-with-a-candle scene in Tarkovsky's "Nostalgia" or the hauling-a-boat-over-a-mountain in Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo", say.

But Barney's films start with his sculpture; a vat of liquid vaseline on the deck of a whaler or a sex-organs-based installation in a blimp. Turning the space-based medium that is sculpture into the the time-based medium that is film is in itself a "trial of Hercules", and the way Barney accomplishes it is with music, a kind of intermediate artform between space and time. Jonathan Beppler's (and now Bjork's) scores are hugely important to the success of the whole enterprise.

I haven't yet seen "Drawing Restraint 9"; I'll see it with Kyoto Karin Komoto on Sunday evening. A Japanese person and a Japanophile will be able to compare notes on the film's use of Shinto, gagaku, tea ceremony and so on. What I have seen, though, is the trailer (which looks great) and the press.

Some of the reviews have been aggressively dismissive. While the New York Times liked the film, they noted "an overt spiritual dimension that is a new element in Mr. Barney's work. If that spirituality is an outgrowth of his relationship with Bjork, it is a welcome addition in an oeuvre whose obsession with athleticism, competition and fertility rites has sometimes taken on fascistic overtones." Ah, poor Hercules, your labours now seem to us like fascism! But who knew fertility itself was fascist? Well, survival of the fittest and all that, I suppose Mother Nature has a bit of a Hitler thing going on, or at least a Darwin one.

The most dismissive review came in the New Yorker, who called the film "'The Simple Life' for a pair of self-important art-world celebrities. With a combination of lavish pageantry and industrial exertion, the Nisshin Maru, Japan's last whaling ship, sails off from Nagasaki Bay. Along with its crew, it carries two guests, Matthew Barney and Bjork, who submit to elaborate rituals of tonsure, pomade, and dress at the hands of solemn bearers whose job it is to keep from laughing at their employers' airs. They partake of a classical tea ceremony in an unabashed display of Oriental kitsch that makes "Memoirs of a Geisha" look like an ethnographic documentary. As their berth fills with what might be water or whale oil, the couple lovingly carve each other up into human sushi. Barney, the director of this unbearably empty spectacle, has in effect filmed at great expense the couple's designer-sightseeing cruise, with little more skill and vastly more pretense than the average tourist."

Whether you like Barney's oeuvre or not, it's hard to deny that, by adding an epic sort of narrative to his sculpture, he's not only had considerable impact on the public, but also influenced other artists, and established a new genre, the blockbuster sculpture. Watching Pierre Huyghe's film A Journey That Wasn't, for me the highlight of this year's Whitney Biennial, I couldn't help wondering if it was a parody of Barney's apparently not-so-sui-generis genre. Huyghe, exactly like Barney, sails through an icy landscape. In Huyghe's case, it's to discover an island with a single animal living on it. There's much ritualistic (and terribly beautiful) play with weather balloons. Then, back in Central Park, Huyghe recreates the voyage with lasers, smoke and an orchestra. The music by Joshua Cody sounds remarkably like Jonathan Beppler's scores for the Cremaster series.

Interviewed in today's Liberation, Barney explains his incursion into film quite simply:

"Cinema was initially a way for me to enlarge the definition of what I understood by "sculpture". I was very excited by the idea of molding vaseline on the deck of a ship and allowing it to melt when the mold had been removed. The intention is clearer than in the other works, where the objects came before or after the film. Cinema culture people wonder how a film can literally make itself into a sculpture. But in art we have a tradition, Land Art, and I've always felt comfortable with that."

Oddly enough, when people parody Barney, it's his Herculean narrative rather than his attempts to turn sculpture into film they focus on. Here are three suggestions Michael Atkinson published in the Village Voice in 2003 for three more Cremaster films (the series has now ended):

Cremaster 8
Wearing a bronze jockstrap, an astronaut's helmet, and a coat of mango-peach latex paint, Barney scales Angkor Wat while the Green Bay Packers sit in an empty swimming pool, taking turns to blow up a used-car-lot balloon figure of Uncle Sam through a valve on its crotch. Cambodians slowly fill up the pool with cups of guacamole. By the time Barney finishes his climb and sings "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It," the Packers are immersed.
Cremaster 6
Whoopi Goldberg reads the Magna Carta over the Yankee Stadium PA system, as a boa constrictor slowly slithers around the bases after a remote-control toy car with a real mouse in the driver's seat. In the outfield, 30 naked women play 30 grand pianos wearing cardboard Dalai Lama masks. When the boa makes it home, fireworks erupt, spelling "I LIKE IKE" in the sky.
Cremaster 7
Strapped together with bungee cords, Barney and a proboscis monkey run through a shopping mall as members of the Bolshoi Ballet and the cast of Mummenschanz battle each other with paintball guns. Barney is dressed as Elizabeth II; the monkey is completely shaved. In Sears, they meet Udo Kier, who's trimming dwarf juniper trees with a toenail cutter. Together the trio make it to the parking lot, board a circus elephant, and ride into the sunset.

I'll add my review in the comments section on Sunday evening. Anyone seen "Drawing Restraint 9"? Your thoughts? Is Hercules on form?