The supermale films of The Cremaster Cycle represent totems to Matthew Barney’s cock. Two years ago, his wife Björk released an album that sounded like a recording of her vaginal farts. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that these two peas in a pod would collaborate (at least for the first time since the making of their daughter Isadora), and it’s scarcely a surprise that the prop-heavy Drawing Restraint 9, like Medulla—a heady, not-entirely terrible piece of experimental pop music just short of unlistenable—is beautiful, maddeningly indigestible, and, finally, impossible to dismiss. (Alexander McQueen once directed a Björk video and this film may be what it’s like to live inside the lunatic designer’s head.)
The film casts husband and wife as “Occidental Guests” aboard a whaling ship, where they’ll partake in an ancient marriage ceremony that will end in gross, breathtaking mutilation. Outside the liner a group of women scour the ocean floor (for shrimp, apparently), Björk and Barney approaching from either side on small vessels. Inside: A series of characters help the couple undress, replacing her red and fluffy balls-and-strings outfit and his Wellesian getup with Shinto-meets-Eskimo garb. An epic, unbearably long tea-drinking ceremony initiates the couple’s marriage; on the deck’s ship, a Jello mold is filled with a strange liquid. Could it be the same fluid the couple drinks from the conch shell they receive from their host? On the soundtrack: a putter of groans and nonsensical expressions set to the sounds of a Japanese instrument called a sho. You may ask, “What does it all mean?”
Years ago, the release of the latest Cremaster film was an occasion for my friend Alex and I to go to The Film Forum, get stoned, and talk about how much Matthew Barney enjoyed playing with his dick. These breathtaking, original, and self-obsessed works of art didn’t have to make sense because they were built around a very sensible observation: that the reasons why the male sex organ becomes engorged—and goes limp—are not always easily explained. If you’re a man, you didn’t have to “get” all of it in order to relate to it. Three years ago, the Guggenheim show devoted to the props and multimedia artifacts of Barney’s surrealist cycle became a creepifying triumph—like hanging out inside the art-maker’s scrotum. Flash-forward a few years and Barney seems to be thinking beyond sex. Now he’s equating himself and his wife to whales.
Drawing Restraint 9 has a recurring motif: an oval intersected by a bar. This symbol is reimagined in different ways throughout the film: as an affectation (a bow of sorts) used to complement two gift-wrapped packages; as the food the crew of the Nisshin Maru eats; and the waxen substance that solidifies inside the gigantic mold on the ship’s deck. (Is it whale urine? Barney’s semen? The vanilla fudge I buy every year on Long Beach Island? My mother’s Christmas custard?) The middle part of the object—the bar—is constantly stripped away and replaced with something or other: steamed shrimp and the red seed pulp from a pomegranate in the case of the crew’s food; a huge piece of rock in the shape of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo in the case of the giant mold.
The persistent image from Barney’s spooky, narcotic, and sometimes preposterous Cremaster films was the phallus—a constant in a perpetual state of flux. Drawing Restraint 9 is a less visionary and more perplexing work than any of those films, mainly because its recurring symbol is an abstraction that means more to Barney than it ever could to his audience. It’s some kind of irony that the very thing that unites the film is the very thing that tears it apart. Of course, given that the film appears to be about the ritual of life and death, perhaps it doesn’t matter what this conceit means as long as it evokes a perpetual state of cookie-cutter creation and destruction. Not only are Björk and Barney two peas in a pretentious pod, but they’re also slabs of sushi inside a bento box. Yummy, right?