There seems to be a persistent gap between art and the world at large. I don’t mean the generative gap between reality and representation that visual artists have employed to various ends over the centuries, but the vast gulf that divides the abilities and ambitions of those practising in other disciplines from the artist who adopts or echoes their methods. Matthew Barney’s current show, Drawing Restraint, is a particular case in point. The show’s title lays out the artist’s ambition: to make a mark despite curtailing his movement with physical inhibitors or distractions, such as harnesses, a pitching ship, gravity or a trampoline. We watch videos of Barney galumphing about in these scenarios like a cross between Bruce Nauman and It’s a Knockout —the 1970s TV programme in which even royalty gave themselves up for public ridicule, competing in foam costumes for some undignified prize—and we can marvel at the shoes he wore and drawings he made on the gallery ceiling after clambering up the wall while tied to a drum of petroleum jelly. It may simply be that these images have not yet been smoothed over by the tides of history, but Barney’s feats fail to achieve the conviction of Gutai or the rigour of slapstick.
We might think of any number of theatre makers and performers, from Gutai’s Saburo Murakami to Station House Opera, who have almost overstretched themselves in combat with gravity. Barney’s efforts are domestically scaled in comparison, which he could defend by claiming the unassailable fallback position that art often does, of illuminating everyday life and representing the everyman. This does not quite ring true, however, with his long-standing interest in hypertrophic training and his vast installations of petroleum jelly and other man-made materials that almost growl with machismo. ‘Holographic Entry Point’, 2005, for instance, boasts a list of materials that runs like a Two Ronnies sketch: self-lubricating plastic, polycaprolactone thermoplastic, shrimp shells, sea shells, cement, wood, steel, stainless steel, expanded polystyrene, vival, pigment, acrylic paint, acrylic medium, sand and aquaplast. Barney obviously wishes to operate on an epic scale, and has the finances to attempt it, but it doesn’t quite come off.
‘Holographic Entry Point’ represents the winch and ramp of a whaling ship, or rather it represents two, perhaps in parallel universes or a before and after: a plastic white one on the left and a grey concrete one that is smashed, and the winch broken, on the right. The havoc appears to have been wreaked by some strange biological entity, like a long backbone made of balls, lying along the ramp. This may be utterly bemusing for those gallery goers who have not seen the accompanying film, showing in a Notting Hill cinema, but for those who have it is only slightly less so. ‘Drawing Restraint 9’, 2005, is a high-production feature-length film starring Barney and Björk (who also composed the rather wonderful soundtrack) which unravels a myth—involving two Occidental Guests, a large slab of petroleum jelly, a knobbly log, pearl divers, a Japanese tea ceremony, prawns and a magical transformation – that transpires during a trip to the Antarctic. After a long and difficult sequence in which the Occidental Guests slice off one another’s legs, they eventually transform into whales in a denouement that smacks of the Christian family values and audience closure of a Disney film.
The forms and imagery that repeat throughout Barney’s Drawing Restraint and Cremaster series —the mysterious sardine-tin shape, the Pan figures, the petroleum jelly—all amount to a symbolic system that no doubt has an internal logic; and his ongoing project to represent such themes as heroic struggle and mythical transformation, against a backdrop of a hyperreal late capitalist society shot through with outmoded rituals, is a potentially timeless undertaking. But the hubristic undertow drags us back inevitably to the artist and a consciousness that the intensity with which he intends a symbol to resonate can never match our glancing relation with it. In effect, the hyperreality that Barney constructs is just not mythical enough.
Sally O’Reilly is a writer based in London