Friday, March 23, 2007

He Don't Use Jelly

(Alison Chernick, US, 2006, DV-CAM, 70 mins.)

Björk Guðmundsdóttir in Drawing Restraint 9

I know a girl who thinks of ghosts
She'll make you breakfast
She'll make you toast
She don't use butter
She don't use cheese
She don't use jelly
Or any of these
She uses Va-a-a-a-aseline.

-- The Flaming Lips, "She Don't Use Jelly" (1993)


Even if you've only heard about Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 (2005),
you might assume the "9" was a randomly chosen number. From Alison Chernick's short, but informative documentary, I learned that his 11-part "Drawing Restraint" series actually began when he was a college student in the late-1980s.

Chernick's film is full of such facts. I can't say how interesting the uninitiated will find them, but the background she provides sheds welcome light on his work. I still find his dependence on Vaseline excessive, but it certainly confirms his iconoclastic rep!

More Björk

In brief, Drawing Restraint 9 concerns the evolution--or devolution, depending on your point of view--of two "Occidental Guests" (Barney and his real-life partner, Björk) Most of the action takes place on the Japanese whaling ship the Nisshin Maru.

Being the unconventional director that he is, Barney didn't simply commission a making-of featurette. Nor has he even announced a DVD release. Instead he
allowed Chernick (The Jeff Koons Show) to produce her own film about his effort
to get this unusual cinematic/sculptural project off the ground--and onto the sea.

Because of his life-long interest in petroleum jelly as a sculpting agent, Barney decided to base an entire movie around its origins. He's as fascinated by the texture--liquid when hot, solid when cold--as its link with the prehistoric world.

After some casting experiments in New York, the production moves to Nagasaki.
Throughout Drawing Restraint 9, his Guest works on a vaguely cross-shaped piece made out of 45,000 pounds of the slippery stuff, while sailing on the Nisshin Maru. The ship's other Guest (Björk) spends most of her time preparing for the elaborate tea ceremony in which the two participate towards the end of the film.

During the shoot, the Nisshin crew has other concerns, like their goal to catch
440 whales for the purposes of research and "production" (a term left undefined).

In other words, this is an active whaling ship--reportedly one of the few remaining--and not just an over-sized staging platform for ambitious conceptual artists. So
when they're not working on Barney's thing, they're working on their own.


Let the flensing begin!

As Barney explains, the ship represents Japan. The Guests represent land mammals. Once these foreigners board the vessel, their transformation into
sea creatures begins. In addition, he sees their metamorphosis as a love story.

Björk, who also serves as composer, seems to agree since she describes
Japan as "neutral ground" between Barney's America and her Iceland.

Aside from B&B, Chernick speaks with crew members, gallery owners, producers, critics, architects, relatives, and the head of the Japanese Whaling Commission,
who laughingly admits the project makes absolutely no sense to him.

Along the way, she doubles back to look at the Boise-bred, football-playing,
Yale-educated artist's early career--yes, as his dad notes, "Matt" was using Vaseline right from the start. And he modeled on the side, which was considered controversial (it made him a more compelling personality to some, less so to others).

She also includes family photos, pictures of sculptures, footage from performance pieces, and clips from his films, including the five-part Cremaster series and shorts, like "Radial Drill," in which Barney leaps about in gown, gloves, and high heels.

If you caught Drawing Restraint 9 and wondered how Matthew Barney made it
happen, No Restraint is your answer. For those who haven't seen the movie,
it serves as a nice introduction to this one-of-a-kind filmmaker. And though
it isn't a complete puff piece, Chernick is more flattering to Barney than not.

That said, she does leave a few mysteries unsolved. Since artists are a lot like magicians, that may be intentional. Consequently, I have no idea what happens to all that petrolatum when Barney's finished with it--and I'm not sure I want to know!

[drawing restraint 9]
The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania where it was stuck to some of the first oil rigs in the U.S. The workers hated the paraffin like material because it caused the rigs to seize up, but they used it on cuts and burns because it hastened healing. Robert Chesebrough, a young chemist whose previous work, distilling fuel from the oil of sperm whales, had been rendered obsolete by petroleum, went to Titusville to see what new materials had commercial potential. Chesebrough
took the unrefined black "rod wax", as the drillers called it, back to his laboratory to refine it and explore potential uses. Chesebrough discovered that by distilling the lighter, thinner oil products from the rod wax, he could create a light-colored gel. Chesebrough patented the process of making petroleum jelly (U.S. Patent 127,568) in 1872... Chesebrough traveled around New York State demonstrating the product to encourage sales by burning his skin with acid or an open flame, then spreading the ointment on his injuries and showing his past injuries healed, he claimed, by his miracle product. Chesebrough opened his first factory in 1870 in Brooklyn. The brand name "Vaseline" stems from the German word for water,
wasser...and the Greek word for oil, elaion.
-- From the Wikipedia entry on petroleum jelly

Matthew Barney: No Restraint plays the Northwest Film Forum
on 3/23-29 , Fri.-Thurs. at 6:30, 8, and 9:30pm. The NWFF is located at
1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-267-
5380 for show times. Björk's new album, Volta, hits the streets on 5/7.

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