New York City: Art Nearing the Saturation Point (Soundtrack Provided)

It’s March, which means New York City’s art world is about to boil over with activity. Today is the day that the show we love to hate and pontificate over, the Whitney Biennial, opens its doors to the public. And what will the new edition of the Biennial sound like? Scottish-born troubadour Momus is among the selected artists, but don’t expect any laptop music or blindfolded story telling like last summer’s I’ll Speak, You Sing at Zach Feuer Gallery. This time, the eye patched pop-star-cum-artist will act as an “unreliable tour guide” for unwitting visitors. I’m thinking, finally, a decent docent.

Jim O’Rourke made the cut again this year. His sonic contribution to the museum’s restrooms in 2004 made a splash, or helped mask them. This time around he’s showing a film of the un-silent variety. Expect the same from Tony Conrad. Tony Oursler teams up with Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, and Laurent P. Berger for a puppet rock opera called Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30, All Over Again with a soundtrack by Japanther. The Melvins lend some music for Cameron Jamie’s contribution and T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater use variations on the Bob Dylan classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to accompany a gymnasium filled with synchronized jump-ropers. Nari Ward’s Glory, a handmade tanning bed intent on branding stars and stripes on the skin, uses a sound component called How to Teach Your Parrot English, but you’ll have to get really up-close and personal to hear it.

All hail Trisha Donnelly for creating the exhibition’s only purely aural experience. Donnelly is the queen of not-to-be-missed-yet-hard-to-catch ephemera. Last year her 20-minute pipe organ sound installation only occupied the final moments of Creative Time’s exhibition The Plain of Heaven. At the Whitney, there will be a singular thunderous chiming sound reverberating through the galleries like a giant-sized gong every 45 minutes, which may take visitors on the museum’s fourth floor by surprise. Don’t say I never warned you.

But the biennial isn’t the only game in town this month. Head, get ready to spin because here come all the art fares: The Armory Show, Scope, Pulse, DiVA, ArtExpo, Works on Paper, New York Print Fair, and the International Asian Art Fair. While always a glutinous feast for the eyes, your ears will likely feel undernourished by day’s end. But there is a remedy for this condition: Drawing Restraint 9.

The latest head-scratching piece of cinema by art superstar Matthew Barney has been making its way through the museum and international film festival circuit for awhile now, but I finally got a chance to see it at a press screening a couple weeks ago. The film represents the first artistic collaboration between Barney and his wife-or-girlfriend-who-can-tell-anymore Björk—let’s say it together, pow-er-coup-le. Turns out that you may not have to make a trek to the Guggenheim to see Drawing Restraint 9, as IFC is distributing the film in limited release at the end of the month. While the film is probably destined to sell more soundtracks—composed by Björk—than box office tickets, it does underline the fact that music and film are indeed perfect bedfellows.

Judging from the opening shot, which features the most anal gift wrapping session I’ve ever witnessed accompanied by Will Oldham singing a salutary letter in a whispery voice, sliding in and out of tune—is this going to be a musical? Nope. This was just a little prolog before the CGI title sequence which, by the way, definitely confirms Barney’s graphic prowess and the depths of Barbara Gladstone’s checkbook. Let the two-hour-plus symphony of images and sound begin!

A giant industrial manufacturing plant hosts a parade of hundreds in traditional Japanese costumes pulling a shiny tanker truck draped in fabric, sporting a giant blue carnaval-like headdress like an out-of-gas grand marshal. An ancient tea ceremony with intricate tools incorporating seashells and oceanic forums complete with circumscribed movement provides the only dialogue heard in the film. Whaling ships, pearl divers, ritualized grooming, bathing with fruit, eyebrow shaving, hoses, harpoons, sculptural hairdos, animal fur, icebergs, unidentifiable goopy liquids, and of course Vaseline, tons and tons of it—every bit of the film’s imagery lends itself to sonic coloration. In fact, all of this would spell disaster without the presence of music.

Björk steps up to the plate and delivers some interesting sonic parallels. Her score uses harp, sho, piano, and brass, counterbalanced by that signature propensity towards laptop wizardry. The most striking sonic territory is her unabashed use of heavy distortion, as if the sound system were overloading, spewing out noises never before heard inside a movie theater. The music often astounds during such climaxes, but when whittled down to match the snail-like pacing of the film, we’re often left with looping textures, which work really well with the onscreen imagery of, say, an array nautical navigation radars, yet at the same time seems too small or out of place for other vistas and scenarios. That said, I’m still behind Björk’s new career as film composer.

If you’re a fan of Björk and Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, your lucky opening day is March 29. Despite the excruciatingly drawn out scene where the famous couple lovingly sever each other’s legs and continue to hack away at their remaining bloody bodies, carving their way into hip joints, etcetera—don’t expect the film to spring up at the local megaplex—the 35mm celluloid itself emphatically oozes art, instead of the glorified violence which seems to be preferred by the broader public of moviegoers. In Barney’s hands bloodshed comes across more like an Andres Serrano photograph rather than Die Hard With a Vengeance. Drawing Restraint 9 may not be a popcorn shoveling date movie, but I wouldn’t pass up the chance to see it if it rolls into an art house near you.