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August 7, 2006 | by  | in Theatre |
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Drawing Restraint 9

I think that film and the visual arts have an interesting and often antagonistic relationship. Most of this antagonism generally arises from critics wanting to categorise a piece of work as one medium or the other, and floundering with words when they cannot. Most of the reviews that I have read of Drawing Restraint 9 which is in the current film festival have been written by film reviewers who chastise this movie as being a load of boring art-wank, overly self-indulgent, and deliberately esoteric. It is in the ‘film’ festival obviously, and subscribes to many of the pre-conditions and traditions of ‘film’ in that it has stars, a title, a soundtrack, and credits roll at the end. Whereas a piece of ‘video art’ may not contain any of these things, and indeed might deliberately reject them. I’m putting everything in inverted commas here in order to draw distinctions between the array of confusing categories in which we like to place creative arts.

I would suggest watching Drawing Restraint 9 with an open to mind to both its position as a piece of visual art, and also to its decidedly cinematic leanings. Writer and director Matthew Barney seems to be very interested in the opportunities which film has to offer his practice as a contemporary visual artist. Watching the film it is obvious that he takes great delight in the ways in which he can use the camera. There are majestic panning shots and delicate concentrations on the smallest gestures. I think he had fun exploring the ideas that have long interested him through the medium of film.

Matthew Barney is an internationally renowned artist, having won, among other prizes, the prestigious Europa 2000 award of the 45th Venice Biennale. Drawing Restraint 9 belongs within a series of works which Barney began in 1987, each a continuation and exploration of the same set of concerns. These include the power of resistance, containment, and pressure on shaping not only objects but also people and the way they are able to act and create. In Barney’s words ‘The Drawing Restraint project proposes resistance as a prerequisite for development and a vehicle for creativity.’ In Drawing Restraint 1 and 2 Barney conducted experiments within this idea of confinement, by running up an incline while strapped to an elastic band. Drawing Restraint 3 involved Barney lifted a barbell cast in petroleum wax and petroleum jelly (this interest in the qualities of petroleum becomes even more important in Drawing Restraint 9).

In Drawing Restraint 9 Barney works with his real-life partner, the Icelandic singer Björk. I have been a huge fan of Björk’s for years. Homogenic is such an amazing album; it’s up there in my top five. She was, in actual fact, the main reason that I went along to see this film, because she had written the soundtrack. And it was indeed worth going just for the music. Björk has always created majestic pieces of music that often sound cinematic in conception, inevitably suited to the medium of film. She has of course written cinematic music before, for Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Darkˆ, for which she also won the best actress award at Cannes. In Drawing Restraint 9 her compositions are so well suited to the images with which we are presented, that they often seem to shape and guide the scenes. Near the beginning of the movie, some Japanese women are shown diving for pearls and Björk’s music melds from strings to the singular sound of heavy, rhythmic breathing. One of Björk’s strengths is using these unusual sounds to create astounding and often moving soundscapes. This musical breathing certainly brings us directly into the world of these women, and builds an intimacy between viewer and viewed.

I am tentative about outlining the narrative of this film. Mainly because I don’t feel like it is that important. It is extremely hard to step away from the need for an understandable plot, but if it is at all possible, I think one has to when watching this film. Barney is much more interested in process than in definitive endpoints; where a conclusion is reached and everyone walks away happy. Briefly, the movie is shot in Nagasaki Bay, and is filmed for the most part on the pride of the Japanese whaling fleet, the Nisshin Maru. Björk and Barney, who are described in the credits as “Occidental guests” board the ship and take part in the elaborate process of bathing, shaving, getting decadently and bizarrely dressed and taking part in a tea ceremony. Also central to the action is ‘The Field’, a huge tank of some sort of petroleum jelly that is housed onto the boat in the beginning, and as it heads towards Antarctica, slowly freezes and solidifies.

This material becomes a symbol for Barney’s interest in process, resistance, and restrictions. The material is shifted and changed throughout the film by the real life crew of the Nisshin Maru, who cut it up, split it apart and move it around. It shows a material’s differing responses to the conditions that it is placed under, and the manifestations that could be created by carefully controlling it. The final shape that this Vaseline-like goo takes is an oval with a bar across it, and this symbol crops up in many different parts of the movie and Barney’s wider oeuvre. It is symbolic again of restriction, the oval seeking to be complete and full, is impinged upon by the bar that limits its fulfillment.

Björk and Barney are similarly manipulated and controlled by the elaborate costuming and ceremonies that they take part in. We are observers to every part of these decadent rituals, the careful washing, make-up and dressing, all take place very slowly. While some people may get bored, I found something mesmerizing in the methodical nature of these preparations. It is interesting to watch small detailed things happening close up. I think that if you let go of your need for resolution, for explanation, and simply enjoy these processes, then Drawing Restraint 9 will be very rewarding.

The climax of the movie is reached when Björk and Barney, surrounded by the petroleum substance, cut away at each other’s flesh, revealing blow-holes and whale tales. It is very sexual, with lots of vaginal symbolism and seminal streaks of blood. As the audience we feel almost voyeuristic in watching what seems to be a very intimate ritual of consumption. Barney seems to be exploring here the restrictions that the human body places on the creative act, the way in which we are all ultimately controlled by our own human bodies. But in the final shots we see two whales diving away from the Nisshin Maru and into the open ocean. So I think there is hope for creativity in Barney’s conception, and the possibility for rebirth and renewal.

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