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Portrait of wild artist is a model of restraint

Sometime after the 2002 completion of his five-part "Cremaster " series -- the "Finnegans Wake" of avant-garde art movies -- the sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney and his wife and collaborator , Björk set out for Japan to create "Drawing Restraint 9," an amazing, slow-moving, mystifyingly surreal epic set mainly onboard a modern Japanese whaling ship.

Documentary filmmaker Alison Chernick tagged along and made her own hourlong portrait of one of the most intriguing artists of our time. Her film, "Matthew Barney: No Restraint," is as blandly lucid as Barney's is wildly and perplexingly imaginative.

Barney's "Drawing Restraint 9," which premiered in Japan in 2005 and had limited theatrical release in the United States in 2006, relates a mythic tale of initiation and transformation through scenes of spectacular beauty interspersed by passages of soporific tedium. Two unnamed characters played by Barney and Björk are ferried in small boats to the whaling ship, where they are undressed, bathed, and sumptuously garbed in traditional wedding costumes. They take part in an elaborate tea ceremony, and then while floating in a half-flooded cabin, engage in a bizarre, erotic ritual of mutual dismemberment: Using sharp knives they neatly cut and peel the flesh from each other ' s legs. At the end of the film, we see them from afar, changed unaccountably into whales and swimming away together.

Oh, there's also the fabulous parade of traditional Japanese dancers that sees the whaling ship off at the start of its voyage, and the steel vat like a giant Jell-O mold that gets assembled by crew members on the ship's deck and filled with 45,000 gallons of hot petroleum jelly, a substance that often appears in Barney's films and sculpture.

The title "Drawing Restraint 9," by the way, refers to a series of performances dating back to the late 1980s, in which Barney would try to draw on walls and ceilings while held back by ropes and pulleys. There's no actual drawing in the new film, but the preoccupation with trying to overcome the givens of physical reality continues.

The odd thing about what happens in Chernick's film is that no part of the project it documents ever seems to be very much of a challenge. Barney's "Drawing Restraint 9" was obviously a hugely ambitious and complicated endeavor, but its execution seems to go incredibly smoothly: There are episodes of complicated problem - solving, no crises, no screaming arguments, and Barney himself never expresses any uncertainty about -- or, for that matter, any great passion for -- what he's doing. Polite, methodical, and strangely disengaged in his occasional explanations of his ideas, he's not unlikable but he's far from charismatic. (Björk, who composed the film's music -- a mix of traditional Japanese and modern avant-gardist styles -- is disarmingly cute and eccentric, but her part in Chernick's film is limited.)

That there is so little narrative excitement or psychological tension in "No Restraint" might be because of Chernick's understated style, but it appears, as well, that Barney himself is, far from unrestrained, too circumspect and too controlling to let the camera see him sweat or reveal his secrets. So while "No Restraint" will make a serviceable introduction for people new to Barney, it will be frustrating for those hoping for a deeply revealing study. Think of it as "Matthew Barney for Dummies."

Ken Johnson can be reached at