Matthew Barney's latest art project might look good, but what does all that portentous symbolism mean? Not a lot, as far as Tom Lubbock can see
Matthew Barney is baloney. Since his work first appeared on the New York scene in the 1980s, it has been a source of constant astonishment. His total image-sculpture-film project of the 1990s, The Cremaster Cycle, had a five-part film component lasting seven hours. His partner is Björk, and she herself makes an appearance in his new total image-sculpture-film project, Drawing Restraint, now showing at the Serpentine Gallery and a nearby London cinema. His subjects are myth, beauty, pain and the body. The Serpentine bills him as "one of the most innovative artists of his generation". There is no doubt that he has embarked on an ambitious and potentially never-ending journey up his own arse.
The basic problem with an art like Barney's is that it's full of themes, imagery and symbols, but it doesn't add up to jack. It looks like it's made by someone who's read one of those students' guides to lit crit, which explain that a proper work of art is made up of themes, imagery and symbols, and has simply believed it, only adding: "and the bigger the better". The idea that these things need motivating, shaping, energising, simply doesn't intrude.
And putting aside the extraordinary pretentiousness and corniness of his work - because a work of art can sometimes handle a good deal of pretentiousness and corniness - its fatal flaw is sheer slackness. His artistic ingredients are simply presented and accumulated as if that was going to be enough. The result is that they never get beyond being ingredients.
The Serpentine Gallery show has the twin themes of mountaineering and whaling, both activities that involve rope under tension. There are videos of the artist - he is very fit and physical - dangling against an extremely high white wall and drawing on it. Sometimes he wears military uniform. His fey, sketchy drawings of fairy-tale subjects are also exhibited.
The three main rooms have installations that suggest a staging of The Flying Dutchman at the ENO about 15 years ago - a set dramatically slanting and breaking up, with a windlass paying out yards of rope, and smashed nautical equipment, and drums, and pieces of meaninglessly meaningful flotsam, encrusted with shrimps and barnacles, and the skeletons of sea-creatures (also large quantities of lard-like gunk), all arranged in a tasteful manner.
These installations are without any sculptural or architectural impact. They are precisely window-dressing. Their purpose is to assemble and present some resonant bits and pieces. And they indicate the general and unremitting tastefulness of Barney's vision, where everything appears either spotlessly clean and finished, or decorously messed and damaged. But really I wouldn't bother with this exhibition. Barney is an artist whose work should only be experienced at its maximum absurdity, and that's to be found in his accompanying film, Drawing Restraint 9, which has occasional screenings at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill.
You think you know how bad a thing can get. But those who once laughed at the later works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Peter Greenaway for their flights into formulaic and weightless symbolism, may feel an apology is owed. Next to Barney, these directors seem to exhibit a vivid and sturdy grasp of the world's particulars. And those who might want to aim the charge of vacant symbol-mongering at certain British artists - you take a skull, you take some diamonds - may feel disarmed. Barney's work is a kind of lightning-conductor for all such accusations.
Drawing Restraint 9 lasts about two hours. Until the nasty body-shock bit at the end, it's like a very extended, incredibly portentous advertisement for an airline or a telecoms company with shades of pop video. Its production values are stratospheric. It advances at a stately pace. It employs a strictly non-cinematic syntax, where every shot is a tableau that firmly does not point ahead to the next. It has a dreamily suspended soundtrack. It's set in the coastal waters of Japan and aboard a whaler. No whales are harmed.
Its opening shot - a slow fade up from black onto a vision of a stone eye, very close, picked out of darkness, from whose carved depths (as the camera slowly pulls back) a great, liquid, glinting, viscous tear slowly wells and falls - presages the solemnity and the tweeness of much that follows. Yet you may still be surprised by the extent to which, being set in Japan, the film embraces every picturesque National Geographic cliche. There is exquisitely delicate folding of paper, ritual robing in traditional costume, pearl fishers bobbing white in a dark sea, even the bloody tea ceremony.
Björk appears, a wafting muse on a rocky shore, in an utterly gorgeous fur-bottomed scarlet cape with matching tights. Barney appears, the Dutchman himself, standing alone on a plying boat, in a mighty beard and a massive full-length RSC fur coat. Destiny, you know, will in the end bring these two solitary archetypes into a grand and passionate union. Meanwhile, the other strand of the film is unfolding, the very elegant but laborious construction, on the deck of a sea-going whaler, of what I can only describe as an enormous blancmange.
A weird and mysterious long Thing is brought up from the ocean depths by a harpoon - the same long Thing (or a version of it) that lies covered in shrimps and silicon on the floor of the Serpentine. Meanwhile, the jelly is setting inside its mould, whose distinctive shape, I should have mentioned - an oval bisected by a narrow oblong - has recurred in many different forms throughout the film. And meanwhile again the lovers (now on board) are being ritually bathed and dressed and tea'd for their ultimate synthesis.
You are possibly wondering whether in fact the film is meant to be ridiculous, and of course the thought crossed my mind, but I'm sure it's not. But I did also wonder, trying to get some purchase on the possible appeal of this spectacle, whether there was anyone I knew who might take it seriously. I couldn't think of anyone. I suppose basically you'd have to be as stupid as the film itself is.
That's the striking thing about it: it is very stupid, or perhaps anaesthetised. It doesn't seem to reflect at all on anything it does. It's like a vanity project, demanding a viewer who is in effect a friend or relative of the artist, who isn't really paying attention, who's just gaping at the "amazingness" of it. In the end, with a gory special effect, the two lovers flense each other like whales, half turn into whales, cutting one another up in strips, and blubber comes out. At the same time, the long mysterious Thing from the sea is ceremonially introduced into the blancmange, and it all splits apart.
Maybe I don't understand enough about a certain sector of US high culture. Is it something to do with wanting to feel spiritual while being very rich? At any rate, there seems to be a wider artistic tendency here, you might call it the School of Transcendental Vanity, whose specialities are squeaky clean spectacle, drifting tedium and mythic flummery, and whose leading members are Matthew Barney and Bill Viola and Shirin Neshat. I guess it's really a topic for sociologists.
Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075), to 11 November; the film 'Drawing Restraint 9' will screen at the Gate Cinema, London W11 (0871 704 2058) from 28 September to 11 November