Scene & Herd

Flensing Lesson

New York

Left: Matthew Barney. Right: Björk. (All photos: Patrick McMullan)

A modest but conspicuous paparazzi enclosure installed outside the entrance to MoMA’s film theater, and another en route to the auditorium, signaled the hotly anticipated presence of the overground underground’s most fêted husband-and-wife team at Tuesday night’s US premiere of Drawing Restraint 9, a film in which Matthew Barney and Björk demonstrate their love for one another by severing each other’s legs with flensing knives. But even without taking his elfin muse into consideration, Barney’s power as an artist to generate buzz beyond his field remains unparalleled, in this country at least (Tracey Emin might, on a slow news day in London, attract a halfway comparable mob).

With fifteen minutes ’til the curtain went up, I nabbed a seat in the third row and scanned the audience for familiar faces: Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer, impresario Yvonne Force Villareal, Frieze publisher Amanda Sharp, and “Performa” curator RoseLee Goldberg were all settling in. A woman seated next to me complained loudly about a scandalous lack of BlackBerry reception before leaving a message to the effect that she’d be available “only” on her cell phone for the next two hours; a less than reassuring news for her immediate neighbors. In front of me, another woman pulled out a camcorder and appeared to focus on the screen. Would bootlegs of the work show up online that evening, or on Canal Street the next day?

Left: Fashion designer Cynthia Rowley. Right: Cremaster contributor Aimee Mullins with Elise Oberland.

Around 7:45 PM, with the house full to bursting and the Ice Queen seated somewhere towards the rear, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach stepped up to the podium and delivered a brief introduction, noting wryly that despite having invited only four hundred members of “the inner, inner circle,” more than eight hundred had RSVPed. I felt doubly privileged. Biesenbach handed over to Jonathan Sehring, head honcho of IFC Entertainment, then to the artist himself. Barney, svelte in black, commented that he’d appreciated seeing the film first in Japan, where it is set, but was naturally interested in an American audience’s reaction. “Enjoy yourselves,” he concluded with disarming straightforwardness, “and thanks for coming.”

Drawing Restraint 9 is unarguably Barney’s most ambitious and spectacular film to date. The latest part of a “Cremaster”-like multipartite project that has occupied the artist since his late-’80s Yale days, it takes place largely on the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru and follows the gradual creation and dissolution of a massive petroleum jelly sculpture in parallel with the slow coming together and subsequent bloody transformation of two “Occidental Guests.” (Guess who.) There are outlandish costumes and elaborate haircuts, protracted rituals and razzamatazz parades, mysterious natural forms and obscure organic processes. White-clad divers holler into buckets and vomit pearls, our heroine relaxes in a tank full of lemons while hubby gets his eyebrows shaved, and an aesthete’s dream of a tea ceremony runs on and on until the brew must surely be stone cold. Björk makes sparing but effective use of her instantly recognizable arsenal of whispers, wails, and roars on the soundtrack, alternating her own compositions with more dissonant but equally haunting traditional Japanese music.

Left: Artist Jonas Mekas. Right: Curators Louise Neri and Molly Nesbit.

After two-and-a-half hours of Barney’s visionary parallel cosmos, a cab across town to the Japan Society for the official afterparty brought me back to earth with a dull thump. The interior, lit with colored paper lanterns and festooned with greenery, looked elegant, but as the crowds began to flood in, decorous serenity took a back seat to the usual scramble for the bar. Barney and Björk, the latter luminous in a kimono-style dress and perpetually half-dancing with excitement, held court in an upstairs gallery, while the likes of cable TV imagineer Kid America, artist Chloe Piene, curator Donna De Salvo, and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley mixed and matched to frenetic J-pop on the more spacious ground floor.

On my walk home, I passed a crew of workers laying new tarmac on a stretch of Second Avenue. Identically outfitted men following complicated procedures, viscous ooze and clouds of steam, industrial machinery and chemical alteration . . . wait a minute.

Left: Matthew Barney chats with Tony Gerber. Right: Filmmaker and performer John Cameron Mitchell.

Left: Art-world impresario Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: The crowd at the Japan Society.