MATTHEW BARNEY SEES his latest film extravaganza, Drawing Restraint #9, as a model of a world that contains an entire universe within each of its parts. Shot in the environs of Nagasaki Bay in Japan, Drawing Restraint #9 (DR #9) is a love story that stars two so-called “Occidental Guests” played by Barney and his partner, the Icelandic avantpop star Björk, who also composed the film’s ethereal soundtrack. The pair meet on board the Nisshin Maru, the world’s only active whale factory ship, and, through a series of unexpected collisions with Japanese cultural traditions, transform into whales. The film also tracks the fabrication and decay of a forty-five-thousand-pound petroleum jelly sculpture, and, as the plot unfolds, the two narratives merge to reveal Barney’s underlying vision of universal interconnectedness.

Barney, born in 1967, completed the first six Drawing Restraint projects as an undergraduate at Yale, where he went to play football and study premed. (He wanted to be a plastic surgeon.) He transferred instead to the fine arts department, where he started making art about hypertrophy—the break-them-down-to-build-them-up process that muscles go through during weight resistance training. In the first Drawing Restraint project, he tethered himself to a harness attached to elastic bands and strained against them while running up a ramp to make drawings on a wall. In the sixth, he jumped on a small inclined trampoline and made a self-portrait on the ceiling, one mark per jump. The idea that form, and therefore creativity, emerges through struggle against restraint became and remains central to Barney’s oeuvre.


Photos by Chris Winget, ©Matthew Barney 2005, Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Art
Photos by Chris Winget, ©Matthew Barney 2005, Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Art

In the Cremaster Cycle (1993-2002), the five-part filmic visual opera that garnered Barney a place in art history’s pantheon, Barney stars as a hero subject to extraordinary obstacles in the journey toward sexual self-definition—a voyage symbolically represented by Barney’s heraldic symbol, the field emblem, which is a lozenge-shaped oval bisected by a bar. To Barney, the oval signals the body’s completeness, while the bar symbolizes the restraints that allow creative form to emerge. In the Cremaster films, the bar always remains in place. In Drawing Restraint #8(2003), however, Barney removes the bar in order to activate an erotic gesture. DR #8 is a series of drawings including images of an erect penis shooting sperm into a Milky Way-like sky, an abstract rendition of a couple coupling, and pictures of the field emblem with the restraint removed, its two sides collapsing in on each other. In DR #8, then, instead of a singular hero trying against all odds to make its way in the world, two separate entities are united.

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