Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Le Nozze di Barney

Mathew Barney has left the building.

Last week, several of my friends made pilgrimages to SFMOMA to take in Drawing Restraint before it closed on Sunday. Now the jury is all in, and I remain one of the very few people I know who found merit in the film but not in the [ahem, superfluous] exhibit. Scenes and sequences from the film run through my mind even months after seeing it, and I do appreciate a work of art that is able to transcend my momentary experience of it. Is Drawing Restraint 9 innovative in terms of storytelling or in its presentation of character, plot or theme? No. Is it a cinematographic wunderkind notable for its form, score, editing or effects? No. It poses as Epic Grandeur but, more simply, is a souvenir from a trip to Matthew Barney's dreamworld. Yes, I think it is helpful to consider Drawing Restraint 9 as a token gesture and not as a tour de force.

When presented as high art, the personal and private realm of dreams is sometimes unconvincing to a wide audience. We are quick to be curious and analyze (Björk in her bath of lemons, the Lilliputian door-near-the-floor through which the overclothed guests must go) but just as quick to dismiss it all as fun and fantasy. Barney's work unfolds like a dream, full of striking images that seem fraught with symbolism, but it is also a formal explication of being bound (er, drawn) together...of consummation and its consequential power to set free. It is a dream presented as a manifesto, and that's what I think is difficult for its detractors: DR9 documents Björk and Barney, two practically superhuman personas, in a very public and personal declaration of unification, and maybe that, in the form of a big-budget art film, puts some people off.

The film reminds me of those enormous, weighty, leather-bound tomes one is likely to find on the coffee table of many a sweetly married couple. The albums are ridiculous, revealing indulgence and frivolity and (in the most interesting cases) cultural symbols and actions taken quite out of context. Sometimes the appropriations are blatant (a huppah of Tibetan flags held above a couple as they share the communion cup, for example) but rarely do we ever pull out the political correctness megaphone and criticize the absurd details of our friend's and acquaintance's "big day." After all, a wedding is about two people's blissfully narcissistic vision of themselves as a ceremony, and we tend to accept that vision whether or not it aligns with our own personal tastes. I viewed Drawing Restraint 9 as a voyeuristic peek into two people's wedding album, and I happened to like their personal tastes (from setting and location, props and costume, to cultural and ritual action) very much.

As a beautiful dream and formal ceremonial statement, and nothing more, DR9 works for me. But I can also understand why those qualities might not appeal to everyone.


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