Chris Winget/IFC Films
Bjork in a scene from "Drawing Restraint 9," a film by her partner, Matthew Barney, for which she also created the music; it is the first creative project they have worked on together.
The Bjork-Barney Enigma Machine
STARING out a wall of windows into a foggy Reykjavik afternoon, Bjork searched for an image to describe a man with whom she had just spent a year making a movie and composing a two-and-a-half-hour soundtrack, the longest and perhaps most ambitious musical project of her career.
She had been in Iceland for several days, so the English language was hitting her at odd angles, but she finally found the word she was looking for.
"He's a bit of a submarine," she said, and grinned.
It was an apt description, not only because the man in question — Matthew Barney, the artist and filmmaker and Bjork's boyfriend for almost six years — operates at a kind of deep-sea level, silently (he dreads talking about his work) dredging up fantastical and sometimes fearsome creatures from the dark ocean bed of human consciousness. The image also fits nicely with the movie itself, "Drawing Restraint 9," which might best be described as a conceptual-nautical-ritual romance, or maybe a Shinto-shipboard-sculptural tryst.
The movie's two romantic leads are Bjork and Mr. Barney themselves, but their only love scene does not exactly hew to cinematic convention: they sit on the floor of a tearoom aboard a Japanese whaling vessel, and as the room begins to flood with a warm, viscous liquid, they brandish flensing knives and set to work on each other's legs, carving away consensually as dollops of blood resembling sperm float by.
"Drawing Restraint" is the first feature film Mr. Barney has made in four years, and has been highly anticipated by his devoted fans and his critics. This is partly because it answers questions about where his work can possibly go after his epic "Cremaster" movies, eight years in the making, which established him as one of the most ambitious artists of his generation. The densely symbolic and autobiographical sweep of those movies encompassed Mr. Barney's take not only on his own life and art history but also on the act of creation itself — not to mention, among other things, testicular physiology, sexual differentiation, Celtic history, Masonic rites, Mormonism, opera and the Texas two-step.
But another reason for the intense interest in the film is that it is the first artistic collaboration between Mr. Barney and Bjork. It is also her first soundtrack and screen appearance since "Dancer in the Dark," the Lars von Trier movie that earned her a best actress award at Cannes in 2000 but became known for creative discord between the director and the star, who later described the movie as a painful experience, a battle between music and words.
Throughout their relationship, Bjork and Mr. Barney have been intensely protective of their privacy. They decided early on, mostly because of their professional obsessiveness, not to mingle their careers and their life together. But in separate interviews recently, both in coffee shops — one in Reykjavik, where Bjork was recording a new album, and the other in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Mr. Barney was finishing sculpture related to the movie — the two talked extensively for the first time about why they finally decided to work together and about the sometimes difficult, sometimes surprisingly instinctive process of combining their idiosyncratic visions.
Because the two are so artistically and personally unconventional — for the Cremaster films, Mr. Barney transformed himself into a tap-dancing satyr; for the Academy Awards, Bjork transformed herself, with less success, into a swan — is it hard to imagine them doing something as conventional as dating. But they did, after meeting while she was in New York promoting "Dancer in the Dark," and they now live together near Palisades, N.Y., with their young daughter.
In person, they are sometimes strikingly different. Mr. Barney, 38, is friendly but detached and analytical, exuding a conceptual coolness that is reflected in his films. On a recent Monday, dressed in black pants, black thermal shirt and an Indian Larry motorcycle cap, he seemed most comfortable with a sheaf of diagrams, describing the beehive of activity inside a Brooklyn warehouse. There, he and a dozen assistants were at work with sanders and soldering guns on two huge thermoplastic sculptures, related to the movie, that went on view Friday at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. (A major "Drawing Restraint" exhibition opens on June 23 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)
Later, over a latte and a brownie, Mr. Barney did not exactly deflect questions about the more personal aspects of the new movie, but he answered them as if he might be talking about someone else.
By contrast, Bjork, 40, who arrived alone for the interview in white rubber rain boots and a sweater with a knitted owl across the front, was animated and introspective. She said her music was always grounded in her life and her emotions. (On "Vespertine," the 2001 album she was recording when she and Mr. Barney began dating, she sings, quite unambiguously: "I love him. I love him. I love him. I love him.") That often made collaboration with Mr. Barney a disorienting experience.
Describing their first conversations about the project two years ago, Bjork said: "I wanted to know the structure of the movie, the emotional structure. 'Where are the emotional peaks? Where are the emotional bottoms?' And he'd just look at me, like, 'What?' "
"I needed something to build up to," she added.
Mr. Barney clearly did not, at least not in the way most directors do. "It's part of the reason why I'm fascinated by him," she said. "Because it's still just a riddle — somebody who is not obsessed with emotions and not obsessed with emotional peaks. It's like, 'Wow.' "
"Drawing Restraint 9" is in many ways — despite the flensing, the near-complete lack of dialogue and the return appearance of tons of Mr. Barney's favorite sculptural material, petroleum jelly — a more conventional movie than its "Cremaster" predecessors. In its rough outlines, it is the story of a nameless man and woman in separate boats who unite aboard a whaling ship (the Nisshin Maru, the world's only active factory whaling ship), dress for a Shinto wedding and become transfigured into whalelike sea creatures. Inevitably, it will be seen as a thinly veiled metaphor for the couple's relationship.
Mr. Barney's movies are never so straightforward, but he and Bjork seem wary that the project might be viewed as an invitation into their private lives or a blurring of their professional ones. For this article, for instance, they declined to be photographed or interviewed together. But they described how their relationship often changed the way they worked and, though the project was decidedly Mr. Barney's, how their partnership even shaped the pace and feel of the movie, which exhibits what the critic Stephen Holden in The New York Times called "an overt spiritual dimension" absent in Mr. Barney's previous movies.
Mr. Barney recalled that "in some cases, Bjork was writing the musical sketches based on some very loose descriptions of what the scene might be."
"And I'm beginning to try to develop that scene and articulate what's actually going to happen and I'm hearing those sketches and they're influencing me, for sure," he said.
Neither can remember who first raised the idea of Bjork making the music for the movie — Mr. Barney has long worked with the composer Jonathan Bepler — but it began to take hold when he accompanied Bjork on a Japanese tour and found that his attraction to the country was as strong as hers. He had been asked by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, to create a new work for an exhibition there and was thinking about making a film in a place where — unlike, at least conceptually, all the "Cremaster" locations — he had no personal connections.
In the "Cremaster" series he had also tried to meld into a kind of sculptural unity the performers, including himself, and the environments — the Isle of Man, Budapest, a football stadium in Boise, Idaho, where he was raised. Using the quasi-clinical language to which Mr. Barney is sometimes given, he said he wanted the actors and places in those movies to be "hermetic systems," everything functioning visually as "part of a universe that was trying to define a single thing."
In Japan, this was impossible. "It's not mine in any way," he said. So he started to think instead about a movie based on various relationships — guest and host, Japan and America, East and West, freedom and restraint. And in that context, though he seems to try to subvert almost every traditional moviegoing experience, he found himself wanting to tell a love story.
"It made it possible to think about the story in terms of a relationship between individual characters and letting those characters be not only individual from one another but also individual from the container," he said. "For me it was fundamentally totally different."
"It fascinated me," he added, "that it could have this very traditional layer to the story."
The decision to cast himself and Bjork, he stressed, was far less autobiographical than it was practical. "I don't know how to direct actors," he explained, so telling a love story was simply easier with a real-life template, "without getting involved in a level of theater that I'm not equipped to direct."
In other words, while some romantically involved actors might see the dramatic possibilities of performing together from a Taylor-and-Burton perspective, Mr. Barney saw it decidedly from Duchamp's.
"It almost belongs to the plastic art tradition of the found object," he said, "the readymade."
Serving as this found object was fine, and even fascinating, Bjork said, but it did not help her write a two-and-a-half-hour soundtrack, one that she had only about six months to complete. By contrast, it sometimes takes her two or three years to make a conventional album with less than an hour of songs. So she began trying to wrest some clues from Mr. Barney. But as others who have worked with him over the years know, that isn't easy. "Matthew's kind of not really a talkative guy," she explained.
In some cases, because they knew each other so well, Mr. Barney did not need to talk much. He could provide only the most oblique sense of what he wanted and it would register. "He would describe something to me, like, 'Aggressive ships.' And I'd be, 'O.K., I get it,' " Bjork said, "because I spent 14 years living near the harbor here and I just knew what that sounds like."
At other times, however, the signposts were hard to make out, even for a recording artist whose videos — made with cutting-edge directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry — have often seemed as otherworldly as Mr. Barney's films.
In one scene in "Drawing Restraint," for example, there is a nighttime procession of children who perform a ceremony around a hunk of ambergris, an undigested substance excreted by a whale that was once used in perfume making. "He gave me clues like, 'Children, nocturnal, magical march,' " Bjork said, laughing.
This was sometimes frustrating, she said, but never dull: "It was like solving a murder mystery, like Agatha Christie." It was also a relief, she said, to bury her personality to a large degree in someone else's project. "The music is in a supporting role," she said. "We don't want it to be like a Bjork video."
During the filming of the movie, last year, the two spent time in close quarters aboard the ship in Nagasaki Bay, an experience that Bjork described as being unexpectedly comfortable. "It wasn't Iceland, and it wasn't the States," she said of Japan. "It was this third place where we were both guests." She also likes to think of some parts of the movie as a kind of third place, neither wholly Mr. Barney's nor hers.
The "Drawing Restraint" concept in Mr. Barney's work stretches back to his time at Yale University, where he became fascinated with the idea of muscle-cell development, the way an athlete, by exercising, breaks down muscle tissue so it will rebuild itself stronger. Mr. Barney transferred the concept from the weight room to the studio, applying it to artistic creation. He did performances in which he tried to draw while jumping on a trampoline or while being restrained, literally, by elastic cords.
As the idea progressed, it became more abstract and incorporated a symbol that Mr. Barney called the field emblem, an oval with a bar across the middle representing restraint. In "Drawing Restraint 9" the emblem appears as a huge petroleum jelly sculpture on the deck of the whaling ship, and throughout the movie, the restraint bar is ritualistically put into place and removed from the sculpture several times.
On the simplest level, Bjork said, she sees this as a nod to a debate she and Mr. Barney have had for years on the nature of creativity.
"Matthew is obsessed with restraint," she said, describing his love of Manhattan as an example. "The idea that you're stuck between all these gigantic skyscrapers is a restraint. And he finds it's a turn-on for him, it excites him."
"I find that really fascinating, because I'm the other way around," she said. "I'm like, put me on the top of a mountain with deer licking my fingers or something, and that's creative to me. That's like heaven."
So in their years together, does she think that she has in any way relaxed Mr. Barney's elaborately constructed and restrained artistic universe? Is this movie a result?
She smiled. In previous "Drawing Restraint" works, Mr. Barney has talked about how the removal of restraint, allowing for what he describes as eroticism, inevitably results in atrophy. In "Drawing Restraint 9," by contrast, "we become something new," Bjork said. "We become animals, whales, following the ship."
"It's obviously my over-romantic ideal of uniting with nature," she said. "Or at least I hope so."