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Matthew Barney: No Restraint (2006)

How does artist Matthew Barney use 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly, a factory whaling vessel and traditional Japanese rituals to create his latest art project? Barney plowed the waters off... See full summary »


Alison Chernick


Alison Chernick
1 nomination. See more awards »


Credited cast:
Matthew Barney ... Self
Björk ... Self


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How does artist Matthew Barney use 45,000 pounds of petroleum jelly, a factory whaling vessel and traditional Japanese rituals to create his latest art project? Barney plowed the waters off the coast of Nagasaki to film his massive endeavor, Drawing Restraint 9. The documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint journeys to Japan with Barney and his collaborator Bjork, as the visual artist creates a "narrative sculpture" telling a fantastical love story of two characters that transform from land mammals into whales. Written by Anonymous

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Au contraire: too much restraint
2 January 2007 | by Chris KnippSee all my reviews

Superstar-fashion-model-instantly-famous-Yale-artist Matthew Barney is someone you either love or hate. This new film by Alison Chernick, 'Matthew Barney: No Restraint,' makes it hard to hate the man, though. He's not only good-looking but straightforward and easygoing. But this isn't much more than a "making of" for Barney's own recent film, 'Drawing Restraint.' It doesn't ask hard or adversarial questions. And when it's over the art may in some respects remain as puzzling and dubious as ever.

According to an interview with his father Matthew wanted to become a plastic surgeon, but most of all was active in sports in his home town of Boise, Idaho, where he was a star quarterback in high school. Clearly he remains an all-around athlete, and he incorporates physical elements of sports into his work. One shape he often uses, we learn, is based on a certain wrestling mat. An early piece said to have gained attention for him looks like a device used in football training. His work combines Seventies performance art with the use of odd, messy natural materials. Barney uses a giant vat of whale fat in Drawing Restraint, and that early piece was coated in Vaseline. The major European art figure of the Seventies Joseph Beuys (who famously used fat and felt) would be Barney's great predecessor in this; but Beuys isn't mentioned here, nor are teachers or influences alluded to.

As in any "making of," we get a sense of how location was used. 'Drawing Restraint 9' was shot in Japan, largely aboard a whaling vessel. In his film, as we're shown, Barney incorporated Japanese customs surrounding whaling and other things, including the tea ceremony. How much the film is improvised is not specified; one might guess rather a lot. After seeing the post-shoot show one local visitor comments that Barney's use of Japanese culture seems more sensitive – or at least less cringe-inducing – than that of other foreign artists. Barney also used his girlfriend, the Icelandic singer Bjork, in his film as both actor and composer, and she is shown and interviewed. She comments that Japan was a good place for collaboration because it was "neutral ground" for both of them. Barney and Bjork, ornately costumed, are his film's stars. They're both odd, attractive, arty, famous; they're visibly in love; arguably a good match for life and future art collaborations.

"Drawing Restraint" is not a new title, the film shows, but rather a name Barney has been using for an ongoing series of performance art drawings made while overcoming a self-imposed physical challenge – a "restraint." He is tied or held back or climbs up a wall or jumps on a trampoline to draw lines on a wall or ceiling. The action is more important that the resulting "drawing," which in fact may just be a mass of scratches. But how the drawing series relates to the film this is a "making of" doesn't become clear.

Importantly – and this is made clear – the artist has always had access to substantial funds as well as expertise for his projects, of which he is the star and the director, rather than sole craftsman as with many traditional artists. Barbara Gladstone was an early sponsor. Hugo Boss funded this documentary. We see shots of an installation of Barney's Japan show that reveal it featured beautiful photographs, evidently not made by him, but who did make them we don't learn. We do get to see and hear the Japanese ship's crew and whaling authorities commenting and sometimes participating.

A popular film about the art-making process is Thomas Riedelsheimer's 2001 'Rivers and Tides,' about Andy Goldsworthy. In it we easily get a grasp of what Goldsworthy is about. He celebrates the beauty and fragility of nature in his painstaking, often temporary creations. That documentary makes you feel more intimate with the artist (and his obviously easier-to-grasp work), though the film chooses to conceal how much Goldworthy too is aided by staff and funding and how well his work is promoted by exhibitions, lavish art books, and lectures. The impression that he's a lonely fellow in the wilderness is somewhat misleading; it's not the whole picture either. But you do get a sense of what his work means.

I have seen some of Barney's own films though not 'Drawing Restraint.' They are elaborate and strange and painfully slow moving; they made no sense to me. This documentary doesn't address the elaborate surreal aspects of his films. It struck me that he's built up his grotesque self-makeup out of little oddities in his otherwise handsome face, which suggests a blend of Paul Newman and Sam Shepherd, but that isn't anything the film itself commented on. Some clips of Barney's 'Cremaster' series reminded me how opaque they are.

Toward the end of the film of which this is a "making of," Barney and Bjork, floating in the water, in a sequence that even in brief excerpt I found disturbing to watch, slice up their own legs (using fake prosthetic legs) as if they were whale blubber, and turn themselves into sushi. Apparently this came out of the notion that we are close to whales, and it is a chillingly literal interpretation of the idea that we are what we eat. This sequence even in brief excerpt was hard to watch. There is a shock value at times but as in work of the surrealist school, you can't read coherent narrative into Barney's films, in my experience or as shown here.

One wonders whether Barney has any concerns about Japanese over-fishing, damage to the aquatic ecosystem. No answers from this film on all that.

Okay: Matthew Barney is a swell guy. You'd enjoy meeting him. But what's he up to? Should we take him seriously? The artist's defenders say Barney is more than a flash in the pan, that he has complex interests, fascinating – and original – ideas. What are they? I still don't know.

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Japanese | English

Release Date:

4 October 2008 (Japan) See more »

Also Known As:

Matthew Barney: Sem Restrições See more »


Box Office

Opening Weekend USA:

$1,241, 24 December 2006

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Dolby Digital
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